Little Fish, by Casey Plett. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018. ISBN 9781551527208.
Casey Plett’s novel Little Fish begins with an interesting conversation among several friends sitting in a booth at a bar: “It was eleven p.m., and they were all tipsy. Sophie was saying, ‘Age is completely different for trans people. The way we talk about age is not how cis people talk about age.'” Had I not known Casey Flett was a trans woman herself, this conversation would have given it away simply through its authenticity. I have often sat like this with my trans friends discussing the nuances of our lives, the way they do not run the same course as cisgender lives.
This authenticity is, for a trans reader, one of the pleasures of Little Fish. Even if the life of the main character is not your life, there is enough in it to make you sympathize with her. If not an alcoholic yet, Wendy is most definitely steering in that direction. Her life is only barely under control and yet she does have friends, a dad who was not always there for her when she was a child but who is now her biggest supporter, and a regular job, however precarious. Upon the death of her grandmother, she learns from a family friend that her devout Mennonite grandfather may have been trans. This does not exactly send her on a determined quest for the truth, but is more a lingering back story that haunts her as she makes her way through an early winter in Winnipeg.
Little Fish is mostly about the life Wendy is living now. It is a dialogue driven novel in which Wendy has conversations with friends and family, but also with numerous strangers on the street. My reaction to this was that Winnipeggers must be more verbal than Ottawans as my experience with the street is usually confined to silence and what I call “the look”. The question of how well Wendy is accepted as a woman is ambiguous, as on the one hand strangers accost her on the street and on other occasions she passes as a cisgender woman. It seemed a little selective to me, as if it all depended on whether the plot demanded it. However, it also highlights an important point about trans lives. One night after narrowly escaping a sexual assault, Wendy “learned right then: You always had to be on your guard. It didn’t matter how often you passed, it could always be taken away. Always. She’d never be little, she’d never be fish. It could always be taken away.”
Plett never loses her story to didacticism, but to write about a certain trans woman’s experience it is necessary to reveal the reality of her life. It would be dishonest not to do so. “Most days, Wendy felt that eight years after transition, she had made her peace with trans stuff. Whatever she hadn’t made peace with, she’d made peace with the fact there’d never be peace, so to speak.”
How much do cisgender people care that their world torments us thus? I wondered about that as I read this novel. Would they even care enough to read a novel about a particular trans woman that nevertheless touches upon many of our shared experiences. For many years they clearly did not. Or is this just a novel for us? I hope not. Plett has the talent perhaps to make them care. My life has no similarities with Wendy’s – aside from a period in which I over medicated with alcohol – but she is a fully fleshed trans woman character and not the cardboard figures that cisgender writers have been feeding the cisgender public for as long as anyone can remember. It’s hopeful that publishers are finally noticing there are talented trans writers telling our stories in all their sometimes messy glory.
September 27, 2018