For many years, readers were most likely to encounter trans writers and stories in the form of the memoir, which restricted the ways in which trans sensibilities could take literary form. Lately, a little space has opened up for trans fiction, although we might ask whether the novel, too, imposes unhelpful restrictions.
Some trans writers turn to the epistolary as an alternative, whose conventions might offer other possibilities. Akwaeke Emezi, Kay Gabriel, Cecilia Gentili, and Kai Cheng Thom use the letter form in wonderfully different ways. I’ve tried my hand at it as well. Addressing the text in the second person to and from specific people, real or imagined, gets us away from the omniscient narrator and allows us to explore how particular experiences and emotions fall outside both literary and social norms.
In its modern form, the epistolary was often a way to thread alternative emotional, sexual, or ethical concepts through the gaps left in other textual forms. That’s what might link disparate works like Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and John Berger’s From A to X. What Canadian trans writer Hazel Jane Plante offers in her second book is a way to show a trans life in the making, rather than the sort of coherent narrative we are obliged to construct in retrospect.
The title page says “Any Other City, a novel by Hazel Jane Plante”; a second title page says “Any Other City, a memoir by Tracy St. Cyr, with Hazel Jane Plante.” It’s a novel in the form of a memoir in the form of letters. Plante presents herself as the amanuensis of Tracy St. Cyr, an almost famous rock star, whose memoir consists of a pair of letters written from a foreign city to two different lovers, from two pivotal moments in her life. “I imagine my memoir as a skyscraper with an elevator that only stops at the twentieth and forty-sixth floors,” she confides. “You can get a sense of the other floors, but you don’t have access to them.”
In the first half, a young and awkward Tracy has yet to come out, even to herself: “I felt like a hermit crab trapped in a shell two sizes too small.” She writes to a lover back home about her follies and adventures. Tracy has attracted the attention of Sadie Tang, a successful older artist, and the circle of creative queer and trans people around her. Only later will she realize that they were gently offering her ways forward—ways for creating herself as a transsexual as well as ways to develop her art—mostly by just being themselves.
What’s on Tracy’s mind in this first letter is her own self-doubt, which is holding back both her transition and her creative work. Transition, Plante implies, is a creative work all its own. One of the most interesting things about contemporary trans writing is that it takes transition out of the hands of doctors and psychiatrists and turns it into an art that trans people make together. Together, we can become the artists of our own crafting.
Both the art of trans bodies and the body of trans art have related problems: how to conceive of good form without being too beholden to normative ideals of gender or genre. Tracy has to undo her own internalized transphobia to appreciate the beauty of her friends and of her own body. She observes a friend, who is not a man, highlight the faint hairs of their mustache with a little mascara. At first Tracy thinks this is embracing a flaw, but then starts to see it as something that this person finds beautiful—a way to refashion their image as they desire.
Plante wants to show how different trans people create the possibility of being in the world differently—whether it is mascara on a mustache or, for Tracy, as she becomes more aware of who she can become, the kind of music she most wants to make. Transsexuality can be an aesthetic of difference—as Tracy’s own experience shows when she finds, at one and the same time, the distinctive music of her own body and her own musical sound. Plante, herself an accomplished rock musician, writes lovingly about the process of composition. The ways of making a body—its presentation, its sexuality, transforming its traumas into livability—and of making visual art, writing, or music are all connected.
As for trans art, Plante writes: “Make your work as useful and beautiful as you can.” Our arts connect to our lives and help us endure a world with no place for us. The city from which Tracy writes is imaginary, and might be less a city than the place of queer and trans creativity itself.
The young Tracy can barely tell when someone is flirting with her. She has a girlfriend back home to whom she writes, who might be able to perceive a femininity she has not quite come into yet. The older Tracy, in the second half of the book, also has a lover back home, “a mess of sorrow and rage in motorcycle boots.” It’s all gone badly: “At times, you made me feel like a glorious and holy thing,” she writes, until protection turned into possession. Tracy is able to make a viable life, in her body and her art, only by going through two break-ups. Love, too, is a medium of transition.
Trans art is most useful when we’ve lost the possibility of ourselves. One of our arts is sexuality. The freedom and pleasure Tracy finds through sex, her welcoming of a sense of herself as a “hot aging punk dyke,” helps her turn back to her art. She has treated her band badly. In remaking herself, she finds the courage to make amends with her bandmates and start again.
That courage returns with the igniting of her desire. Coming out of a damaging relationship, Tracy just wants to fuck. One thing the epistolary form allows is that it makes the language of sex doubly personal; the reader has to see it from the point of view not only of the writer but also of the person to whom the writer addresses it, putting at least some limits in the way of the fetishizing and judging cis gaze.
In both letters, Tracy addresses lovers who are not trans, but who are perceptive and sensitive enough to be gifted with some of the precious intimate details of the trans experience of life—as when Tracy confides, “I miss having a cock sometimes.” (By her own account, a nice one.) That the writing is addressed to particular imaginary cis confidants enables Plante to model a reception for trans intimacies in their full complexity.
In different ways, these cis lovers let Tracy down. The addressee in the second half of the book seems to have lost interest in her after a facial feminization surgery, leading Tracy to conclude that this lover was attracted to an expression of gender that she herself did not want. One of the tragedies of trans life is being loved for the wrong reason.
Both trans memoirs and trans novels tend toward a narrative coherence that sometimes feels more like something the cis world demands of us than something we instinctively feel. We’re supposed to explain ourselves before we can be considered rational, rights-bearing subjects. Well, fuck that. Both the younger and older Tracys are a hot mess. Our lives can be as inexplicable and incoherent as those of anyone else. It’s beautiful and useful to say so.
That I could not even tell myself a coherent story about my own gender held me back for years. “A body is a slow time machine,” as Plante writes. It’s like another genre, science fiction, where you arrive at a moment or place with only some hand-waving to explain how. Maybe trans literature is beautiful and useful for everyone for whom life lacks the linear order of a novel or memoir.