What is Trans Literature? – Michigan Quarterly Review
A table with stacks of books.

What is Trans Literature?

In May, I flew from my home in Oakland to Winnipeg for the Writing Trans Genres conference.

Two people face the camera, one straight on, the other facing slightly away.
Sitting with my friend Gr. That’s just my resting face – I’m happy to be there, I swear! (credit: Trace Peterson and Samuel Ace)

WTG was the brainchild of Trish Salah, professor at the University of Winnipeg and author of Lyric Sexology Vol. 1 and the recently republished Wanting in Arabic, for which she just won a Lambda Award. The official description reads, “A conference for writers, performers, critics, and community members to celebrate and theorize an emerging body of literature by transgender, transsexual, two spirit and genderqueer writers,” but I experienced it as a magical, and all too brief, summer camp.

I know that it felt magical because when I began work on this blog post by transcribing my notes, I realized that I had filled over fifty notebook pages in four days. I believe this speaks not only to my graphomania, but to my giddiness at the quality of the keynotes, readings, panels, performances, and workshops offered. I should also mention the quality of the conversations, meals, tears, laughter, and community. The conference was somehow more than I could have dreamed (as one participant said, “I’ve been waiting forty years for this”) and still not enough.

In respect to this cornucopia, WTG was a microcosm of the ways in which trans people, and to a lesser extent, trans issues have entered the public eye with a complexity and at a scale that has arguably never been witnessed. At this point, I should back up and talk about what I brought with me, and what I took away when I left, or: questions and more questions. I wanted to give a full report, but it would be impossible in even ten blog posts. Instead, over the course of the next few posts, I’ll introduce some of the questions I had about the intersection of gender and genre before the conference and questions that the conference raised or refined, like: What is trans literature? What does it mean for a literature to emerge? What is our relationship with the past? What is our responsibility to the future? I don’t know if I’ll be able to answer any of them in a conclusive way, but that’s the point. Literature, trans or not, is an ongoing conversation. If I can point to the work of some talented contemporaries, I will consider my work well begun.

What is trans literature?

A table with stacks of books.
This is (part of) trans literature. (credit: Trace Peterson)

I came to writing as I think many writers do, through a childhood filled with a love of reading. At WTG, Amir Rabiyah, author of Risk and editor of Writing the Walls Down, talked about not having any early experiences with trans lit as such, but finding a ground for it in myth, religious imagery, magical realism, and imagination. He discussed the question from the perspective of the possibility to become versus the desire on the part of many cisgender folks for a trans lit that emphasizes, demands even, disclosure and revelation.

A poet reading at a podium.
This should be Amir’s author photo, I think. (credit: Samuel Ace)

His description resonates with my own experience. As I moved from the magic-filled realm of children’s books to adult literature, I searched anxiously for a way to preserve the possibility to become and found it in poetry. In time, I had a kind of crisis of faith. I read widely and deeply in poetry and in the transgender literature I could find (mostly memoir and gender theory), but I couldn’t seem to find one in the other and so began to feel impossible for a while. By the time I encountered the work of kari edwards, experimental poet and gender activist, she had passed away. I went back to feeling impossible, and it hurts to feel impossible in your genre. Eventually my partner forwarded a call for work for an anthology of trans and genderqueer poetry sent out by Trace Peterson and TC Tolbert. This call became Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, in which I was floored and supremely grateful to be included, but which I would have loved anyway, because the quantity and quality of work meant that I was not only possible, but a member of a wide-ranging and diverse community. Even though many of the contributors were geographically far-flung, just knowing they existed meant and means something vital to me.

I’ve told this story before, but I’m retelling it here (and I’ll probably tell it again) because it is thankfully already harder to conceive of a writer coming up this way—in the dark. I want to sing this difficulty as a reminder of why, and for whom, I write. I wasn’t being metaphorical about community: Troubling the Line has been the occasion for several gatherings and group readings: at AWP, at the Poetry Project, at Troubling Tucson: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry Symposium. At each of the events I’ve attended, I’ve relished the way names attached to poems have become friends, allies, comrades—something hard to effect without physical proximity. That deepening of community, and the deeper understanding of writing which is gained by experiencing a writer’s words through the medium of their body, are a part of why I proposed a panel at WTG.

I mentioned that WTG felt like summer camp and I think that feeling came out of how easy it felt to be there. Although more trans people feel empowered to live openly as such now than in other eras, we are still very much a small subset of the larger population. It can be difficult to find community. But WTG formed a temporary city within a city for me. It felt easy to walk down the street, flanked by other trans folks, to go to a restaurant, to go to the club that hosted WTG’s performance night, an Unbecoming Cabaret. If you are not trans, I will tell you: these seemingly basic activities can be hard, if not downright tortuous, especially if you don’t pass. I feel compelled to talk about this in spite of the fact that it seems peripheral to the writing part of Writing Trans Genres, because it is central to the trans part. It’s an example of what Tom Léger and Riley MacLeod discussed in their Trans Fiction Writing Workshop: what literary and political spaces open when trans writers talk to each other? Sometimes it is about the minutiae of living askew to the prevailing gender system, but often the transness recedes and the humanity is allowed to emerge in a way that is often suppressed, in life and in a literary landscape that is obsessed with one aspect of our lives: the transition narrative, or the sentence: I am a ___ trapped in a ___’s body.

One very simple definition of trans literature for me is: writing which allows to you feel possible. But the forces of narrative are strong, and if the publication of Troubling the Line and Topside Press’s The Collection mark the beginning of a new era in trans literature, of what does the rising action, so to speak, consist? Join me next time to ponder:

What does it mean for a literature to emerge?

A note on language: WTG also featured many conversations around terminology, including very reasonable objections to what is called the trans umbrella. I have chosen to use trans as a shorthand in this post for a wide range of genders as a reflection of its elastic use in my community and because of the linguistic ease of using a single term. I’m conscious that this ease comes at the risk of minimalizing some identities and I intend to explore this risk in future posts.

Book cover of Troubling the Line with an image macro featuring the text, "I heart my trans & genderqueer friends"
I really do! (credit: Samuel Ace)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M