The trans art of storytelling: Casey Plett’s 'A Safe Girl To Love'

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 7:49pm

NOSELL

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Despite the number of high-profile films, books and political debates surrounding transgender people that captured public attention in the 2010s, the voices of actual trans people remain decidedly outside the mainstream. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of publishing: Most writing by trans people is outside the mainstream, distributed by small presses or self-published online. This series aims to introduce interested readers to trans fiction writers, whose work might not be familiar to most. Often, we have stories to tell that are profoundly different from what has been written about us.

The title of Casey Plett’s short story “Twenty Hot Tips To Shopping Success” suggests an article in a women’s magazine, the kind read coyly and out of view. It opens with suggestions for where to go: “Decide on the store where you will be shopping. The best ones are either large second-hand thrift stores like Buffalo Exchange, or mid-range mall department stores like Old Navy. Someplace where the employees will be too bored, high, or pretentious to bother you with assistance.” The story is told in the second person (like an address to the audience), but we gradually get the sense of one particular (very anxious) person. “Arrive outside the store. Casually peer inside. Walk around the block and/or mall floor. Rub your arms nervously. Repeat a few times. This will build your confidence.”

The protagonist here is a closeted trans woman shopping for women’s clothes for the first time. Despite the well-worn stereotype of trans women as fetishists who “infiltrate women’s spaces,” this particular moment, as any trans woman will tell you, is more mortifying than titillating. The protagonist of “Twenty Hot Tips” is so nervous that she brings a pocketful of Xanax, and when a store worker looks at her in the skirts section she feels her throat close up in anxiety. After several trips to the store, she finally gets a single skirt, brings it home, contemplates wearing it outside. “Don’t look in the mirror. It’s not helpful. Depending on how strongly you care about this whole thing, it may very well not be helpful for a long time,” the narrator tells her, like a kindly older sister, or a future self. 

This story, which appears in Plett’s 2014 collection “A Safe Girl To Love,” is adapted from a column Plett wrote for McSweeney’s while an MFA student at Columbia University. The column is a collection of mostly autobiographical pieces concerning the first couple years of her transition — the first article concerns the moment right before she went on hormones, and later entries concern name changes, dating and hormonal ups and downs, among other things. 

It’s worth noting that trans nonfiction has a longer history than most other forms of trans literary production. Memoirs by white, upper-middle-class trans women in the second half of the 20th century served to explain the process of transition to a skeptical public. These memoirs focus mostly on the process of transition itself, which, in the telling, inevitably begins in early childhood dysphoria and culminates in gender confirmation surgery. These books package the author’s life into a neat narrative of suffering and redemption that ends with a happy, heterosexual woman who can integrate normally into society. These memoirs were written in a moment where trans people were even more marginalized than we are now, and these privileged representatives of the nascent community of transsexuals took on a role of advocacy by trying to prove to the broader world that we’re just like them. 

Plett’s work, emerging out of a period of greater self-determination for trans people, is less interested in convincing anyone of anything. Instead of advocating for our normalcy, Plett’s fiction and essays let her readers inside the heads of trans women, showing people what is particular, ambiguous and messy about our experiences. 

In the case of the column, the profusion of day-to-day experiences that shape a trans woman’s life are shown in detail. Most of the column doesn’t concern the physical, medical aspects of transition (hormones, surgery, etc) except in passing, instead giving an account of the subtle shifts in her relationships and memories that might (or might not) have portended her transition itself. Plett avoids indulging curiosity about what a trans body does or means, and when she does go into a detail of medical transition’s effects on her body it feels less like abetting voyeurism and more an exploration of her own experience as it’s happening: She writes about her skin getting softer, her moods changing, slowly learning to want different things. The column is at its best when she writes about relationships and friendships — a touching account of a hairdresser that consoled her through the initial stages of transition, an anecdote about a girlfriend who didn’t react well to her coming out, conversations with her father. The column, which concerns the earliest stages of transition, often details the many ways that people around you can react to transition, which is often more complicated than the word “acceptance” might suggest.

Many of the stories in “A Safe Girl To Love” concern relationships and friendships that similarly bridge this awkward divide. In “How To Stay Friends,” a recently-transitioned trans woman named Minerva meets with a cis ex-girlfriend for dinner, seeing her for the first time since she transitioned. Like “Twenty Hot Tips,” this story is written in the second person; the reader gets the sense, like in “Twenty Hot Tips,” that this situation is a common one for newly-out trans girls. We also see how much Minerva is not saying, but could. When her ex tells her her lipstick makes her look like a drag queen, Plett writes: “Nod and say ‘You’re right. It’s totally fine, thank you for telling me and being honest.’ Mean it a little, hate yourself a little, die a little.” This is a kind of meeting that reminds a trans lady of her past as a boy, which is both acutely painful and prone to dredging up old feelings. Minerva still feels a mix of desire and regret about her ex, even as she isn’t the most sensitive about her transition. At one point she calls Minerva “country boy,” an old nickname, which prompts a cascade of conflicted feelings: 

“Don’t be sad (you’re not a boy, you’re not). Don’t be sad (you really did used to love when she called you that.) Don’t say anything. It’s not a big deal, it’s not, is it? … She’s been so nice. She cares about you like no one else. She does. She has such a lovely smile. It’s like a knowing smirk but it’s not condescending, it’s like she’s sharing a secret. Notice her bangs are razor-straight above her brow. She used to let them grow so long. They’d fan out over her eyes as she slept. Her skin in alternating shadow and light with the cars on Eastern Parkway. Glasses of water she’d brought you on the floor beside the bed. Your legs under your chin, the side of your head on your knees. 

Sometimes she wasn’t actually asleep.

She would say: What?!

She would say: I love you. 

She would touch your chest, move her hand, make a soft rustle in the bristles. She’d say: You’re good. I mean, you’re good. Here.”

It’s almost as if Minerva, after rapidly rationalizing getting misgendered (the plaintive insistence of the “she does”) ends up wishing that anything could ever be like it was before. She both wants her ex to stop reminding her that she was a boy once, and is reminded herself that she misses being her ex’s boyfriend. There’s nothing for her in those memories — she’s not even in them, not really. Nostalgia, for a trans woman, often has a choking bitterness to it. Like a snake’s shedded skin, a trans person’s past takes their shape but is hollow and no longer useful, even as it gives evidence of life being there once. 

This particular melancholy nostalgia is a thread through the stories in “A Safe Girl To Love,” which frequently depict trans women returning to their hometowns after a period of living elsewhere. The first story in the collection, “Other Women,” depicts a trans woman named Sophie visiting her home in Winnipeg, Manitoba around Christmas. The story drifts through the usual awkward rituals of being home for the holidays — visiting friends, attending events with extended family and spending a lot of time with immediate family, in this case Sophie’s mom. This is her first visit home since she came out, and she’s interacting with most people she meets as a girl for the first time.

Much like Minerva’s ex, Sophie’s family and friends don’t outright accept or reject her, and they aren’t entirely good or entirely bad about her transition. Her extended family mostly just tries to ignore it. A younger cousin innocently tells her that he prefers her deadname and asks her if she “goes on dates.” Her grandparents take this a step further, explicitly referring to her as their “grandson” at the dinner table. Later, when she leaves, she finds that her grandmother has left a slip of paper with a Bible verse in her coat pocket telling her to “trust not in your own understanding.” Sophie understandably spends a lot of time with her friend Megan, the first person she came out to, and Megan’s roommate Mark. They do a lot of the teenager-y stuff that people home from college do — they get drunk and stoned and watch movies and bad TV, they go to a house party hosted by people they knew in high school, where Sophie is misgendered repeatedly (“be cool, alright?” one boy says when Sophie tentatively points this out). 

Sophie’s relationship with Megan slips past platonic near the end of the story, but trying to have sex with Megan makes Sophie so dysphoric that she has to stop, which makes Megan upset. This scene illustrates very well how dysphoria clusters around sex — Megan expects Sophie to behave essentially like a man in bed, pushing her to do certain things she’s uncomfortable with. Sophie feels like she’s literally slipping back into her former body, using language that calls up images of demonic possession: “I saw his body again through my eyes, breathed in his throat and left quarter-moons in his palms, I grunted through his deep, rolling voice.” The pleasure she feels is undeniable, but it’s a “crossed-wire pleasure” that almost makes her scared of herself. Meghan doesn’t understand this about Sophie, in much the same way that Sophie’s family and friends don’t understand her and make assumptions that twist her into a distorted version of her prior self. It’s a bracing, uncomfortable scene that brings the rest of the story into sharp focus. I doubt that a cis writer could have pulled it off — the particularities of our bodies are so often elided in cis writing about trans sex, and Plett’s depictions of trans sex bring into sharp contrast the vagueness and clumsiness of cis authors that deal with the same topic.

“Other Women,” like “How To Stay Friends,” essentially depicts someone making an uneasy truce with the expectations of the people around her. Elsewhere in the collection, Plett depicts the communities of queer people that sustain trans women after they move away from their hometowns. The loose groups of lovers, friends and comrades offer queer and trans people places to define themselves outside of the scrutiny of straight society, though there are often internal tensions as well. The story “Lizzy & Annie,” which was originally published as a zine in collaboration with the illustrator Annie Mok, depicts an uneasy relationship between two trans girls in Brooklyn. Early on, Annie tells Lizzy that “she wasn’t really super great with commitment or monogamy and all that stuff, and she got scared easily” and Lizzy goes along with it even as she starts to want more.

The story is understated, mostly focused on the ordinary activities that the two trans girls get themselves into, including little glimpses into the nuances of queer community. At one point, Lizzy and Annie run into Weetzie, a cis girl who is Lizzy’s friend and Annie’s ex. Later, Annie calls Weetzie a “chaser” (a cis person, usually but not always a man, who fetishizes trans people) and says that she “hates dyke everything.” Lizzy is a little surprised by both of these things — she doesn’t have her guard up to the same degree that Annie does. This moment serves as a microcosm for the rest of the story, which slowly reveals how Annie’s emotionally distant approach to surviving life as a trans woman leaves Lizzy, who yearns for connection, on the outside. She rationalizes this uneven arrangement to herself: “She was lucky to have her at all. Who knew, Lizzy thought, the finite amount of nights in her life where she would sleep with her hand around a trusted body. That trusted hers. It wouldn’t be a lot, anyway, would it.” 

“Lizzy & Annie,” like most of the other stories in the collection, doesn’t end happily. Plett doesn’t round out her stories with notes of optimism, and steers clear of the moralizing and hollow promises of “it gets better” rhetoric. What she does instead feels more honest. Lizzy’s story ends in compromise — much like the compromises Sophie and Minerva negotiate — but it’s one she can live with, at least for now.