Tag reviews The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard edited by Tom Leger and Riley Macleod

TheCollection

“In some ways, this book is a response to what so many professors of English language literature ask their students to consider at the start of each semester. Why literature? What does literature accomplish?”

The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard is straightforward in what it is right in the title. It’s a collection of short stories featuring trans* characters. This in and of itself is rare, as transgendered or non-binary gender identified people are often left out of “queer” literature in favour of cisgendered lesbian or gay, or bi characters. It’s a huge void in queer literature I want to see filled much more than it is, but The Collection is such a surprisingly hefty read that it bridges the gap quite a bit. It’s almost 400 pages of stories featuring protagonists with one identifying feature in common: they’re all trans*-identifying (or non-binary, in a few cases).

“Literature” is exactly the word I would use to describe the quality of the content in this collection. Any genre you can think of makes its way into this collection one way or another; while most stories are realistic or contemporary, there are a few supernatural or superhero tales, all exquisitely written. There’s no shortage of representation from one gender identity to another, and several stories feature a multitude of transgendered or non-binary characters just being characters, much in the way other fiction has background characters that we would take for granted. With this collection it’s impossible to take them for granted, but they’re written and treated no differently from any other non-trans* fiction.

The stories aren’t without discomfort on a lot of levels. Many of them integrate the microagressions that transgendered and non-binary people face on a daily basis, but never in a way that feels cheap or fake. The realness of each portrayal is exactly what makes them uncomfortable, and I won’t deny that some stories have a cringe factor so high I had to put them down and take a breath before continuing (I’m looking at you, The Café). However, after that breath I couldn’t wait to pick this collection back up, and I didn’t want it to be over. What I really want is another few dozen in the same vein. Halfway through this I was already recommending The Collection to my trans* and genderqueer friends, and after finishing it I couldn’t help but recommend it again. This is an amazing collection with a lot of talent behind it and it belongs with any other collection featuring great literature.

[Also check out Danika’s review!]

Danika reviews The Collection edited by Tom Leger and Riley Macleod

TheCollection

When I first heard about The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, I thought it sounded amazing, but I didn’t think it would be relevant to the Lesbrary. Luckily, I was completely wrong! There are about 9 stories that I consider relevant to the Lesbrary (either bisexual or lesbian women, or genderqueer/genderless/agender stories). That’s a third of the stories in The Collection!

This book really does something that hasn’t really been done before: it’s a professionally published anthology of literary short stories, all featuring trans main characters. There is such a lack of representation of trans people (especially main characters) in literature, that you might expect an anthology to have to stretch to find enough content. Instead, this is a hefty 400 page book which is packed with really high quality stories. Although as with all anthologies, I like some stories better than others, I found the overall quality of writing to be excellent: much better than I would expect from any anthology. Although there are a few fantastical stories, and a superhero story, most of the stories in this collection are realistic and down to earth (one focuses entirely on the main character’s miserable Tuesday working in a coffee shop, dealing with endless microaggressions). The writing flows together well, also. They seem to have similar styles, which makes it pretty easy to move from story to story without getting whiplash. I sometimes get irritated with short stories that end without a real conclusion, as if they were just excerpts from a novel. For the most part, I found the stories in The Collection to be well-crafted and satisfying by their conclusions. Satisfying does not necessarily mean uplifting, though. Many of the stories deal with prejudice, microaggressions, and general discomfort. It can be be uncomfortable to read someone being continually misgendered and misunderstood by the people around them, but they read honestly and as affirmations of many people’s realities, which is necessary and even hopeful in itself. There are also more positive stories included (the superhero one previously mentioned is one), but for the most part The Collection does reflect the reality of being trans in a cissexist world. (Though I am cisgender, so of course I can’t claim to fully understand that reality.)

Short descriptions/impressions of the les/bi/genderqueer/etc stories follow:

“To the New World” by Ryka Aoki: You know what I said about this collection sometimes being uncomfortable to read? The main character in this story, Millie, is completely loveable, but she is into Sierra, a “radical” lesbian who is casually transphobic and racist (Millie is Asian). It is painful to read, but sadly completely believable.

“Other Women” by Casey Platt: Another uncomfortable story. Sophie deals with a tense relationship with her family after coming out as trans, with microaggressions from friends along the way. Only her best friend, Megan, really seems to understand and accept her. And then that gets messed up, too. Sophie seems to be bisexual, but by the end of the story I’m not sure what to think. Really, I think she’s just looking for someone to see her the way she wants to be seen.

“Greenhorn” by K. Tait Jarboe: This was one of my favourites. Olivia is a non-binary bisexual person who happens to regularly be accidentally visiting another dimension. (I’m not sure if they identify as bi, but they are attracted to men and women in the story.) I loved the idea of the story, and the writing was fantastic. I kept stopping to read things aloud to my partner. Like this: “I did know two people from college, and I ruined everything with both of them that same way, which was with sex and my personality.”

“The Queer Experiment” by Donna Ostrowsky: This was another great story, though I couldn’t actually see what the trans content was. In any case, it’s a great lesbian short story. Jennifer is an engineer at a university in the 1920s and, along with another professor and an assistant, is attempting to build a machine that will allow them to see the mystical world of the homosexual. It’s hilarious, even if it technically ends tragically (you know Jennifer ends up in an asylum from the first page.)

“Runaways” by Calvin Gimpelevich: “Runaways” actually has a trans man main character, but it is primarily focused on his best friend and her girlfriend. I loved all of their interactions, and the tension of Nike trying to decide whether to flee her relationship for a less responsible one (her girlfriend is currently trying to take care of her 10-year-old sister while their dad is in jail). The characters are so strong. (Also, Travis is Black and Nike is Filipino, so the story also touches on the intersections of cissexism/heterosexism and racism. Travis especially struggles with this.)

“Winning the Tiger” by Katherine Scott Nelson: This story is about a couple, both non-binary, dealing with being continually misgendered at a state fair. In the author’s bio, Nelson says that this story was once rejected from a mainstream publication for being “too aggressive”, which I think is teaser enough.

“Malediction and Pee Play” by Sherilyn Connelly: Yes, it’s as weird as the title suggests. The main character is technically in an open relationship with her girlfriend, Vash, but while she’s been striking out, Vash is getting closer and closer to her new partner. She attempts to get closer to Vash again, to try to get the sparks of their kinky relationship back, by helping her with a Satanic Black Mass production. But the despite the weird, the emotions at play are very relateable, no matter what your opinion on pee play. Or Satanism.

“Birthrights” by M. Robin Cook: The main character’s wife walks in on her dressed as a woman. Awkwardness ensues.

“Entries” by Riley Calais Harris: I’m not sure how to describe “Entries”. It reads almost like a condensed autobiography. She describes a radical activist who dumped her because she shaves her legs. The last line is “Oh, you know what? That’s probably why I shave my legs.” It’s not a very linear story, but I liked it. The ending is oddly uplifting.

I hope that this convinces you to pick up The Collection, even if you’ve never read any trans books before. It has great stories, a high quality of writing, and several lesbian stories! What more can you ask for?

Danika reviews First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon

From about the first page of First Spring Grass Fire, I was already frustrated, for three reasons: 1) it is very well-written, 2) it is very short, and 3) it is, at the moment, Rae Spoon’s only book. I was dreading getting to the end of the book pretty much the moment I started it.

I first discovered Rae Spoon’s music by their tour with Ivan E. Coyote. I adore Coyote’s storytelling, and Rae Spoon’s music was a great match. I still listen to their music all the time, especially “We Become Our Own Wolves” and “Come On Forest Fire Burn the Disco Down”, so when I heard that Spoon was coming out with a book, I was really excited. First Spring Grass Fire does not disappoint. In a lot of ways, their writing does remind me of Ivan E. Coyote’s. Both talk about fictionalized (?) short stories from their own lives. Both have very easy-to-read, casual styles that simultaneously are deeply moving. Both discuss growing up queer in rural environments.

But Rae Spoon has a style all their own, as well. There are moments of almost poetry in their work. There is also a rawness and urgency to First Spring Grass Fire that is far away from Coyote’s usually positive remembrances of her childhood. Rae Spoon describes growing up trans and queer in a very conservative environment, but that pales to their childhood with their abusive and schizophrenic father. It is definitely, as the back cover says, “quietly devastating, heart-wrenching. . . “, but of course there is also a strength and hope to their memoir, knowing that Spoon escapes and thrives.

This book is intensely personal. Rae Spoon invites the reader into the most painful and difficult moments of their childhood, and shields very little. We get moments, quickly jumping from time to time and location to location. They are incredibly evocative, but they are only brief excerpts. As I have said, it makes me eager to read more of Rae Spoon’s work. I very much hope that they will be writing more, because from this slim collection alone (along with their beautifully written music), Rae Spoon has already been added to my list of favorite, just as emily m. danforth managed to do with her debut book. In case it isn’t obvious, I highly, highly recommend this one, especially for Ivan E. Coyote fans and for people looking for more stories of trans young adults.

Danika reviews Drag King Dreams by Leslie Feinberg

I loved this book. I still have yet to read Feinberg’s classic novel Stone Butch Blues, but I definitely am motivated to now. I read Drag King Dreams for an English class of mine, and I can see why it would be assigned: there is a lot here to tease out.

[mild spoilers] On the one hand, and probably the reason I enjoyed it so much, Drag King Dreams is a deeply political novel. Not just because it deals with subjects that are always politicized (trans* people and racialized people, especially), but because it is about Max’s political reawakening.

Max, as a visibly gender nonconforming person, spends the beginning of the novel just attempting to survive, just trying to get through day by day in a world that is largely hostile to hir. Throughout the novel, however, Max reconnects with hir activist past. I totally understand that there’s sometimes when the only thing we can do is just try to survive, but when that’s all you’re doing, every day, it becomes nearly impossible to do without losing momentum. In rediscovering activism, Max finds a reason to do more than just struggle to survive day-to-day, and I feel like that’s such an important message. [end mild spoilers]

There is more than just queer politics in Drag King Dreams, however. Max’s aunt, despite not being there physically, is a constant presence in the novel. Max’s experiences with virtual reality weave throughout the novel–though, arguably there are never really resolved. Max’s Jewish identity is explored. The war in Iraq plays a part in the novel.

It is odd that, despite Max playing on a computer, and despite the prominence in the novel of the war in Iraq, Drag King Dreams still felt like a timeless story to me. It explores, I think, the endless struggle in being part of an oppressed group. I really recommend this one, as long you’re okay with your fiction having a heaping dose of political opinion, and now I can’t wait to read Feinberg’s previous novel.

Laura Mandanas reviews Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

A few weeks ago, I decided to bring a book into the tub for a relaxing bubble bath. When the temperature was right, I gingerly picked up the paperback and eased my way into the frothy suds, cautiously avoiding the slightest splash. I took careful pains to hold the book a deliberate 6-8 inches out of the water. I even piled up towels at the edge of the tub in case of slippery-fingered emergency. It didn’t matter; within 20 minutes the book was completely waterlogged. The culprit? Not bathwater, but tears. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg had me weeping by the end of the first chapter.
Stone Butch Blues is a beautifully written novel. The main character, Jess, is a young Jewish butch coming of age in the late ‘60s. Drowning in loneliness, Jess finds companionship in the queer community frequenting working-class gay bars. In this pre-Stonewall era, however, their mere existence is enough to prompt brutal attack from all sides. As the story unfolds, each of these characters weather hardships of an enormity I can barely comprehend.

Jess is a complicated character, and the book (thankfully) never backs away from this. I particularly appreciated the range of characters shown throughout in the book. “Butch” identity is not reserved strictly for lesbian women that present themselves in traditionally masculine ways; men, straight and bisexual women, and transgender people can all lay equally legitimate claim to the identity.

 Stone Butch Blues is the winner of numerous literary awards, and its clear to see why. This book is an essential read — and not just for the person who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man” (ha). This is a book for anyone with a soul.

Stone Butch Blues is one of the most widely read pieces of LGBT literature, and appears on the shelves of many major retailers.