(Full disclosure: I was on the jury for this year’s Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBT Writers, for which the author of this book received an Honour of Distinction.)
Trans literature really is in the middle of a renaissance. Deep, tough and searing books about transgender life (by actual transgender people) are present in a way they were not five years ago. Small Beauty, a debut novel by Toronto writer and musician Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, is a stunning entry to this oeuvre.
Small Beauty traces the troubled life of Mei, a young mixed-race trans woman of Chinese descent, living alone in her dead family’s old house. The narrative snaps back and forth between Mei’s drowning, violent past in the city and her quiet present in the country, where she has been living since her loving cousin Sandy died in an accident.
Wilson-Yang is a fucking beautiful writer and her lyrical prose about this messed-up girl is some of the most gorgeous writing trans lit has been blessed with. It’s matched for me maybe only by Lilith Latini’s poems. The narration is in contrast to many other trans novels of its ilk. Unlike, say, Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, Mei’s voice is strong and angry but it’s also quiet, ethereal and interior. It’s kind of similar in that way to Jamie Berrout’s Otros Valles (which I’m currently in the middle of reading). On being clocked at the grocery store in an ambiguous manner, Wilson-Yang writes “Mei’s face flushes. These interactions feel like a mix of coffee and booze, the warmth of recognition and the anxiety of direct attention. She is unsettled by the host of uncertainties that comes with being recognized as a trans woman by a room full of strangers. Besides, rainbows make Mei feel buried, lost.”
Her anxiety is not random. It turns out she was brutally attacked years ago in the city. This recounting too is written in the same spare, observant voice. One of the hardest things for me to read on my second time around was when Mei’s voice gives away her trans-ness to the man who attacks her: “She reads his panic, seeing it flame to anger, and inferno leaping from forest to field.” Or when later that night Mei shows up bleeding at her friend Connie’s, an older trans woman from Hong Kong, and the first thing Mei notices is her radio on:
Connie had said she really liked the sci-fi ones—stories focused on different realities and non-human elements make her feel more at home. Most of the time the racial bias of the authors is so thinly veiled that she knows when they write about aliens, they write about her. Genders they don’t understand. Colours they can’t place.
The book does the non-linear plot thing deftly, with a small cast of strong, easily identifiable characters and a constant slow-release of information about Mei’s life and the complex weave of her Chinese family’s secret pasts. We start the book not knowing much more than that Mei is hanging out in an old country house with a dog and really doesn’t want to fucking talk to anyone. Wilson-Yang then slowly and rhythmically peels back the onion’s layers.
The first real shit-disturbance to shake up Mei’s solitude is Diane, who eagerly and unsolicitedly inserts herself into Mei’s life when they run into each other in the grocery store. Diane reveals she used to date Mei’s aunt, who Mei didn’t know was queer. This sets Mei in motion on working through some personal shit and discovering the past. Also, Diane broke my fucking heart. She has the bluster and charm of a hard-drinking, country butch dyke, but she read Mei as a gay dude at first and is then revealed to have certain intolerances towards transsexuals. She’s offered her chance at redemption later but her whole arc is so good and painful.
Beyond Diane, the ghosts of Mei’s family (chosen and bio) also show up, in both literal and metaphorical ways. They illuminate secrets and tell Mei to get her shit together. The final scenes are by a rural Ontario lake at night, Mei by herself and then with the voices of dead people she loved, first in an unlicensed truck, then a warm fire and then a stolen canoe:
She comes to a boathouse and small beached dock. The moon pours grey-blue light over the weathered boards. Someone has left a pair of goggles. There is a rack of canoes and a firepit (…)
Soon, she is sitting facing the bay, listening to the soft lapping of the water warming herself with the fire. (…)
She is mesmerized by the fire, holding a stick and poking at the coals. She puts down the stick and tosses in a couple of small twigs. They crackle and burn. You’ve been tending it. She remembers Connie’s warnings. You never get to have your heart back. She gets up and kicks apart the logs, spreading the fire out. She tosses beach sand on the hot coals. The lake, a constant witness, says nothing.
She wants to get off the land.
Mei isn’t always a quiet girl simmering in her sadness and anger, particularly when talking to her friend Annette (a flashback scene where Mei gets drunk and yells about the whiteness of the trans flag in front of the community centre is the most hilarious and bang-on of her sporadic piss-and-vinegar moments). Mostly, though, the voicing stays lyrical and unflinchingly probes racism and transphobia and death and family with an unsparing eye. Importantly, it does not attempt to explain itself for a cis/white audience. It’s pointed and lovely.
Also: The geese. Geese show up several times in threatening and sometimes deadly ways. It worked for me aesthetically on the first read but I also felt like I was missing something, that there was a depth to their sinisterness I didn’t quite get.
Then I read Morgan M Page’s handle on it in her review for Lambda Literary:
[Canadian geese are] a potent symbol of liminality throughout the short book. They are at once a stalwart emblem of (white) Canadiana and a vaguely threatening omen of illness and death for Mei’s Chinese family. Mei finds herself caught in liminal spaces–between the country and the city, the past and the present, her Chinese family and white Canada, the land of the living and the land of the dead.
That gets at it more, I think. The geese were more powerful for me on second read as foreboding symbolism. (Page also kindly cites an article I wrote and suggests Small Beauty is a rejoinder to what I called “Gender novels.” I agree.) And while Small Beauty shares lots in common with the rather quickly growing sub-genre of books about fucked-up young trans women, the ending is not bleak, nor is that un-bleakness unearned. It’s nice.
The plot does bunch up a bit towards the finish. Loose ends of subplots and side characters tie up a bit too rapidly and neatly for such a short novel—a subplot about the town’s closeted queens and trans women felt to me like one of those good stories that belonged in another book. It’s a small quibble though. Small Beauty is a fantastic read and I’m beyond stoked to see more from Jia Qing Wilson-Yang.
Metonymy Press | 160 pages | $16.95 | paper | ISBN 978-0-994047-120