When I was a teenager, a close friend bought me a switchblade. When the blade flicked out, you could see the word “stiletto” written delicately on its edge. The blade was dull and I felt clumsy with it in my hands. That knife was an early lesson in womanhood; through it, I learned that stiletto heels—a dangerous, alluring emblem of femininity if ever there was one—are named after knives. Kai Cheng Thom’s fantastical and carefully constructed writing brings the knife blade and the high heel together in an engaging, fast-paced fictional—or is it?—memoir.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir plays beautifully with differences between reality and fantasy. The book embraces the anger, the alienation and the brilliance of the struggles of racialized trans women—throwing them back at the world at large with fists, stilettos and glitter. Most refreshingly, the novel flies in the face of simplistic trans transition memoirs that fixate on the difficulties of being trans in the world and depict trans women as craving nothing more in life than to be seen as the women that they are. Instead, it’s a story of trans women accepting and loving themselves rather than fighting to be recognized by others as something we already know we are: women. Personally, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is the bedtime story I needed ten years ago, five years ago—and right this minute.
The novel’s action is set in two mythic locations—Gloom, a city beside the ocean where it always rains, and the City of Smoke and Lights, where anything can happen, In this way, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars eschews typical CanLit naturalism, giving readers a glimpse of trans realities that are deliciously wrapped in the fantastic in her text. As a racialized trans woman myself, there was so much that was familiar and close to my own reality that I only needed to look up from the book to see that these realities meshed so perfectly with the parts of the book that are fantastic and magical. It left me with the sense that my life and the lives of other trans women are a kind of magic.
The characters in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars manage both hardship and incredible violence. The protagonist has left home with no money, leaving a place where she has perhaps been assaulted—something Thom describes as “a boiling cloud of rage searching for the sweetest, softest thing they could find.” Other women who populate these pages have also been harassed and assaulted, their friends and lovers murdered—again, aspects of Thom’s book that are all too real. The fantastical sparkle of the story gives trans women readers a vital model for coping. Throughout the book, the unnamed main character writes odes to her knife, a switchblade, alluding to self-harm as a coping mechanism. But as the protagonist grows, so does her relationship with this knife.
The unnamed protagonist in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, a young Chinese trans woman, leaves her younger sister and birth city of Gloom to realize her womanhood in the City of Smoke and Lights. There, she meets a group of trans women, mostly racialized, who work a drop-in centre, work on the street or find the things they need for survival in whatever ways they can. She finds a community of struggling trans women who survive and support each other, regardless of the wishes of the city around them and the circumstances of their lives.
I don’t mean to paint them as group of people perpetually expressing love and appreciation for one another, Thom’s writing is far too honest for that. The women argue and fight. Relationships start and end and start up again. But despite whatever disputes the trans women in Thom’s world may have with each other, they have each other’s backs in whatever ways they can. Even if it means strongly-worded advice. They are their own guides, one of the most authentic aspects of this book.
There is a divinity in Thom’s writing of this story. The ways she constructs the narratives of the individual women as legends and the thread of trans woman ancestors protecting the women in the story is an homage to the way many of us feel about the trans women in our lives that act as mentors, or saints. Coming into myself as a trans woman of colour from the very white towns where I grew up to cities like Toronto and Montreal, the older trans women of colour I met were deities, mythic creatures of astounding strength, astonishing beauty and unparalleled grace. These women are the women who took the police to court to win rights that I am thankful for anytime I go through a security check. They are the women who sat in shelters in the winter refusing to leave because the shelter workers refused to see them as women and were ready toss them back out to the winter streets. They are the women who traveled across the country, from city to city working the streets—doing what trans scholar Vivian Namaste encourages us all to see as political work: interacting with tens of thousands of cisgender men and teaching them bit by bit about trans women’s lives.
I loved many aspects of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, but as a Chinese trans woman myself, the specificity of Thom’s choice nods to Chinese trans womanhood especially resonated. From reflecting on our ancestors coming to “Gold Mountain” so we might have a better life only to see us end up as transsexuals to the viewpoint that all Asians feminize well, the nuances of Chinese transsexuality are recognized and well-articulated by Thom. In many ways, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars reads like the greatest of Wuxia cinema. I’m imagining Ang Lee directing Jin Xing in the movie adaptation of this novel. At the very least, I want to see this book turned into a manga. It is a book that anyone attuned to what acclaimed trans author Casey Plett has called the “trans literary renaissance” must read. And the rest of you should too. In her own critical appraisal of this novel, two-spirit trans poet Gwen Benaway writes that the fairytale style of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars leaves the story open to a range of interpretations. I have no doubt I will be interpreting this book in a new way each time I reread it.
Metonymy Press | 200 pages | $16.95 | paper| ISBN# 978-0994047137