In many ways, Casey Plett’s novel, Little Fish, is resolutely of its time: in 2019, the tale of Wendy Reimer—a trans woman living in winter-bitten Winnipeg, grappling with the inertia of her circumstances—is a welcome addition to a growing canon of trans and other gender-diverse stories across literary categories.
But, given another look, Plett’s work is a requiem for lost futures, particularly when Wendy discovers that her Opa, a devout Mennonite farmer, might have been transgender too. Fresh off her First Novel Award win, Plett and The Walrus had a conversation about how she and other trans writers have found belonging in fiction
You recently said that you chose not to disclose which parts of your story featured in Little Fish for the simple fact that trans stories should be appreciated in and of themselves, rather than for the salacious disclosure. Were you always planning on doing a story rooted in the trans experience?
I’ve actually been writing about trans stuff for nearly a decade now. In the fall of 2010, I was fortunate enough to be selected to be a columnist for the McSweeney’s website. Because I had just transitioned at the time, I thought, “How cool!” The response really made clear to me how, on a mass scale, there had been a huge dearth of trans writing about trans lives by trans people. I had always been a steady reader of realist fiction about mundane things—things that were billed as “true to life” or “close to home”—which had moved me and changed my life. The Raymond Carvers and Lorrie Moores. But I wondered what it would look like if those normative lives had trans people in them. From that point, it was a project I never stopped being interested in.
There seem to be a new swell of trans narratives entering the non-fiction space. But what is your sense of the ones showing up in fiction?
The amount of stuff being done in the space of non-realist fiction is so great. There’s a short-story collection called Invasion by Calvin Gimpelevich that came out last fall, which is stunning. I actually co-edited a science-fiction anthology of trans writers four years ago, and when we opened up submissions, I think we got over 300 writers sending us work for a very specific ask: speculative fiction from trans people. So [momentum] has been building.
Little Fish is really a multigenerational story. Is there any part of this novel that is an offering to people of previous times—for those who may have been trans but were forced to stay in the dark?
I thought about that a lot. Those things look and sound differently than maybe we would perceive them. With Wendy’s grandfather, you could easily see he was closeted, where obviously those were probably not the terms he was thinking of, a person of that community and age. Henry is buried under layer upon layer of obfuscation. He grew up in a community where the language for this stuff would have been [nowhere], a not-talking-about-your-feelings kind of place. I’m always interested in how people react to situations they can’t even conceptualize or find language to talk to themselves about.
What can be done to improve the quality of fictional trans stories that are published?
Assuming this question is particularly geared towards cisgender authors who have good will and intentions, I think I’d say that if you have trans people in your life, and you write about them in the same way you know how to write about anyone else, you’re on the right track. Particularly, I think when well-intentioned cis people attempt to write about transphobia as opposed to trans people, that’s when I see problems arising most in this day and age. I hope that distinction makes sense.
What was your response to winning the First Novel Award? That a diverse story, yours, was the one that won?
When it comes to what it means, I’m not capable of properly analyzing it. Recognition is fraught, you know? There are so many wonderful trans writers out there, and I certainly have already had my fair share of good fortune before this. I do have some ideas in the future for other narratives that I haven’t explored in my existing work, but I’m still going to be trans, so that lens will likely still be there. But I can say it felt really, really amazing and that it will change my life. That, I feel pretty wonderful about.