These are groundbreaking times for trans literature — here are your essential reads
Poet Gwen Benaway shares your 'Trans Lit 101' reading list
My second book of poetry, Passage, emerged in 2016, the same year as several other works of trans literature, including Kai Cheng Thom's Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars and jia qing wilson-yang's Small Beauty. It was jia qing who introduced me to trans literature, pressing a copy of her book into my hands and gifting me with Imogen Binnie's novel Nevada. Until I read those novels, I had no idea what trans literature could be or that my work was part of a rapidly expanding universe of art.
What is trans literature?
Historically, the books we consider trans literature are stories about trans people written by cisgender authors. I consider works like Ariel Schrag's Adam, Rachel Gold's Just Girls and Shani Mootoo's Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab to be a part of this history, as well as more recent work such as Zoe Whittall's Holding Still For As Long As Possible and Kathleen Winter's Annabel. The decision to include work by cisgender authors as part of trans literature is contentious, because many trans writers feel that trans literature can only be written by a trans person. I agree with this perspective because it parallels how we approach Indigenous literature in the Indigenous community. Though it's been a subject of debate, we always come back to the same definition: it is work written by Indigenous peoples.
The truth is that trans literature would have struggled to exist without the work of cisgender writers. They were able to get published, and the success of their books proved there was a market for trans stories, an important step in building space for trans literature as being financially viable. In the last four years, we've seen an increase in trans writers being published, especially trans women. While works by trans women writers have existed for decades, such as Jan Morris's Conundrum (1974) and Rachel Pollack's many science fiction books, trans literature directly focused on the lives of trans women is a recent development. Casey Plett's brilliant A Safe Girl to Love and Imogen Binnie's Nevada were two books which started to create space for trans women writers to speak about something more than memoir or medical transition.
From poetry to young adult fiction, trans writing has never been this visible
Works by racialized trans women, such as Vivek Shraya's even this page is white, Kokumo's Reacquainted with Life and Ryka Aoki's Seasonal Velocities, have further complicated trans literature by weaving race and resistance into conversations around being trans. My book, Passage, is one of the first published works by an Indigenous trans woman, but is joined by other books by two-spirit and non-binary writers such as Qwo-Li Drysdale's Walking with Ghosts and Billy Ray Belcourt's upcoming collection of poems and essays, This Wound is a World. By bringing in diverse conversations around gender, race, colonization and the reality of being trans, trans literature is becoming one of the most dynamic literary spaces in North America.
There has been an emergence of trans lit for young adults, such as Meredith Russo's If I Was Your Girl, which was recently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Trans literature has also expanded into celebrity writing. TV personality Janet Mock, for example, has penned two memoirs about her experiences as a black trans woman. So many Canadian authors are mentioned in this article. There has never been a moment where trans writing has been so visible in this country.
Within that visibility is an increased vulnerability as well, one which many trans writers struggle with facing. As we become more visible to the mainstream, we also become more accessible to attack and shame.
What's next for trans literature? Whatever we want!
The increased visibility of trans writers and literature also highlights one of the main tensions in our work. For a long time, trans literature was viewed as educational for cisgender audiences. It was a chance for readers to learn more about our mysterious lives. The publication of Imogen Binnie's Nevada was the start of new form of trans literature where we did not have to educate our audience. Nevada is about a punk trans girl in New York who does some stupid things. She goes on a road trip, meets a boy who might be trans and then ends up in a casino. While there are many insights in Nevada about being trans, it is not a novel about only that. It is simply a story — one with no agenda.
Novels such as Small Beauty carry on Nevada's groundbreaking work. Trans literature has reached a place where the stories we tell are the ones which matter to us, not an outside cisgender reader — and that marks a major shift. When we tell stories for each other, the range of what we can write about is much wider. And when we can do that, trans literature is no longer an oddity. We are moving beyond stories of transitioning into writing about our lives, in all their complexity.
What comes next for trans girl literature? Whatever we want. I can't think of a more exciting time to be reading trans literature, so start with the titles in this article and see where it takes you. We're talented authors with something to say and a perspective on the world which no one else has. Read us because we're good writers, not because we're trans.
Gwen Benaway's Trans Lit Reading List
Ryka Aoki, Seasonal Velocities
Imogen Binnie, Nevada
Qwo-Li Drysdale, Walking with Ghosts
Rachel Gold, Just Girls
Kokumo, Reacquainted with Life
Shani Mootoo, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab
Jan Morris, Conundrum
Casey Plett, A Safe Girl to Love
Meredith Russo, If I Was Your Girl
Ariel Schrag, Adam
Vivek Shraya, even this page is white
Kai Cheng Thom, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars
Zoe Whittall, Holding Still For As Long As Possible
jia qing wilson-yang, Small Beauty
Kathleen Winter, Annabel