Eleven unique short stories that stretch from a rural Canadian Mennonite town to a hipster gay bar in Brooklyn, featuring young trans women stumbling through loss, sex, harassment, and love.
These stories, shiny with whiskey and prairie sunsets, rattling subways and neglected cats, show growing up as a trans girl can be charming, funny, frustrating, or sad, but never will it be predictable.
Other women Twenty hot tips to shopping success How old are you anyway? How to stay friends Lizzy & Annie Real equality (a manifesto) Portland, Oregon Not bleak A carried ocean breeze Winning Youth
Casey Plett is the author of A Dream of a Woman, Little Fish, A Safe Girl to Love, the co-editor of Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy From Transgender Writers, and the Publisher at LittlePuss Press. She has written for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Winnipeg Free Press, and other publications. A winner of the Amazon First Novel Award, the Firecracker Award for Fiction, and a two-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award, her work has also been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She splits her time between New York City and Windsor, Ontario.
You'd think that with how much I read this would be old hat by now, but I always get a little bit anxious when a friend publishes something. What if it isn't good? What if I don't like it? How do you walk that line between supporting their work and wanting to be honest about your opinion of their work? I've lost a lot of sleep over how to review books of this sort, that complex dance of criticism, the "well i liked this aspect, but this and this felt like they were superfluous" waltz of carefully worded critiques. Fortunately, when it comes to the stories of Casey Plett, this concern never even crossed my mind. I was in love from word one.
No stranger to the written word, Plett has previously written a column on transitioning for McSweeneys and had a story featured in Topside Press' 2012 anthology, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard. Both marked her as a voice to be watched, a writer whose spare style and conversational approach evokes many comparisons to Michelle Tea's fictionalized memoirs of lesbian living. With the publication of her first short story collection, Plett makes good on the promise hinted at in her earlier stories, also reprinted herein, and offers us a sampler plate of the myriad ways that trans women are living, loving, and existing all throughout the country.
These girls are beautiful, at turns both fiercely strong and defiant against a world that loathes or fetishizes them and also so frighteningly fragile and vulnerable, so breakable that you'd like to capture them in a bell jar and keep them tucked away safe forever. Like Lisa, the recently single cam girl haunted by memories of her ex and crippling social anxiety, who ends up having a kink-fueled fling with an older lesbian in "How Old Are You Anyway?", a story which had me both titillated and nodding along in recognition as her conscious narrative devolved to a catalog of sensory input, those amazing spikes of pain that shoot from nipple to groin to neck and back again and all you want is for that ache to never end because for a moment you're so mercifully free of all concerns and actually home in your body and actually feeling and what does it matter that it's pain and hurt because for so long you've just felt nothing that to be able to feel anything physical at all is just so fucking transcendental. And then it's over. And the walls come back up and your thrice-damned thoughts come rushing back in and that blissful nothingness is just the faintest blissful memory.
Or the dynamics between "Lizzy and Annie," two Brooklyn trans girls negotiating their own uncertainty and fears to find love with one another, bouncing from bar to bed to breakfast all whilst ducking the attentions of chasers and the leering stares of their coworkers. Or the unnamed narrator of "How to Stay Friends" out for dinner with her ex for the first time since transitioning and simultaneously wanting to make a good new "first impression" and deconstructing everything that you did wrong and regret while you were dating and trying to maintain the facade of being a virile straight man. That particular story hit a little close to home and necessitated me putting the book down for a few minutes to catch my breath and get some distance from the material before returning. We all have those things we really regret from the times before transitioning, but it's always a bit disconcerting to see your own thoughts writ so clearly upon the page.
By far my favorite story is the largest, "Not Bleak," about Carla, a trans girl living in a small Mid-Western town near the Canadian border working at a book store and her friendship with Zeke, a mennonite trans girl who may or may not have stolen her hormones and her passport but who also really needed a friend and a community. Carla, ever of the warm heart and willing to extend the benefit of the doubt becomes close with her to the point of posing as her girlfriend and returning with Zeke to the small Mennonite community she grew up in so she could see her grandfather before he passed. Zeke utterly broke my heart, this poor little trans girl who was willing to hide her identity and be seen as a boy so as to preserve the links she had with her family. This girl who needs support so badly but who is her own worst enemy and continually brings people to distrust her. I want to say more but I don't want to spoil the story, but Plett's portrayal of an insular small-town queer community where everyone knows one another and has for years and how the lack of anything to do leads to some enormously silly hijinks in the name of entertaining yourself is absolutely spot-on. Of all the stories, this is the one that I've come back to and read several times more.
These stories are all about trans characters, which I love because there's a frightening lack of creative work by and about girls like me, but they appeal to a much larger crowd as well- those of us who have ever stood on the outside of a party and watched the interplay between people and wondering why it seemed so easy for everyone else, those of us who have ever dealt with fear, anxiety, or isolation, those of us who have ever gotten sloppily drunk in order to feel more at ease in social situations. Plett has an amazing eye for the fragile foibles nestled within everyone's hearts and I think that any reader, trans or cis, can connect with her characters. This is her first collection, but I'm certainly hoping it's not her last as Casey Plett's voice is one that is desperately needed within the realm of fiction. Her stories are the sort that I long to read. I don't know that I could ever recommend a book more highly.
Oh my god, I FUCKING LOVED THIS BOOK. Full review to come!!
Here's the review!
Around this time last year, I read an amazing debut short story collection by Nancy Jo Cullen that I raved about, saying it was the best fiction I’d read all year. There must be something in the air in late July, because I just read Winnipegger Casey Plett’s book A Safe Girl to Love—also a debut short story collection—and I just fucking loved it. In fact, both books share a keen sense of place, an authentic, diverse human (and non-human) cast, and a liberal dose of fun, bitterness, heartbreak, sex, misery, and love.
Above all else what I feel like Plett really excels at in A Safe Girl to Love is that she really gets lots of different kinds of people....
Every word of Plett’s writing is understated but packs a walloping, forceful impact, just when you’re not expecting it. I think Plett has gone well beyond the call of The Collection editors to feature trans characters as agents of their own destiny–although she certainly has done that. She has written trans women as complex, fascinating but regular human beings–in both the good and the bad ways–with humour, passion, and intelligence. That’s the kind of people I want to read about and the kind of author whose work I look forward to.
(Oh yeah, did I mention one story has a TALKING CAT in it? Just in case you weren’t sold already.)
While this book attempts to convey the diversity of transfeminine experience, it doesn't quite get there. The author seemed to have an incapacity to write outside of their own experience. (Like I'm pretty sure that transfeminine individuals do not universally work in book stores, attend university in some capacity, and love getting their nipples abused after getting sloshed. Geez.) The narrators shared a very similar, even indistinguishable voice.
I'm not sure what the point was of the quirky grammar exclusion of quotation marks except for when talking to cats. It was distracting and confusing and didn't add to the book in any way. I felt like the drop off endings were another attempt to be quirky, but also did nothing to add to the book.
With the exception of the very narrow range of diversity of experience, the book had a very authentic and honest feel and I think that it is important that books like this exist. It just wasn't particularly memorable or profound for me personally.
pros: ownvoices short story collection where every story has a trans woman main character. some are lesbian, some are bi, some are straight, so there's a variety. some stories also have trans side characters or other queer friends. one story had a mother-daughter pair where both of them were trans and that was nice. the stories also went into all kinds of trans experiences.
cons: this book was just... really exhausting to read for several reasons. it's full of triggers, heavy topics, swearing, berating each other - some of that is stuff that I don't have a problem with normally, but after a while it just felt too much and I got bitter and I barely wanted to finish the book. also it has this writing style where it doesn't clearly separate the dialogue and that was nice for a while but it also got exhausting.
Essentially every story in this collection is a door opened, a clear movement into a new area for trans literature to explore. They're also all great. Just this prodigious, ambitious talent that's also fantastically kind, about spaces and situations that it'd be very easy to simplify, to make efficient to navigate with. Casey Plett totally resists that temptation, leaves situations as messy as reality, and finds a way to navigate them anyway with grace and delicacy--and with a raucous wildness that's held in reserve until ideal moments. It's pretty great and you oughta read it!
One of my New Year's resolutions was to finally read some of the physical books that have been roosting on my shelves. One bad thing that has come from Goodreads use is that I am constantly being exposed to new and shiny things I want to read, and the books I already own get dustier and dustier, essentially acting as a decorating theme. So I started with the short stories pile, and for the second time in two days I am abandoning a collection early on and consigning the books to the giveaway pile. Yesterday I got three stories in to Drinking Coffee Elsewhere before I cut bait without a rating. Today I got only two stories into A Safe Girl to Love before crying uncle but this time I am including a star rating. That first book had some moments, some beautiful sentences, that egged me on to keep reading, that told me the writer had real talent, but perhaps lacked the bravery necessary to write great things. This book did not tell me that I was in the hands of a potentially good writer. What it did tell me is that I was in the hands of an adult with the emotional life of a 12 year old. The first two stories in the book are terrible. I hate to say that, but seriously, they are awful. The prose is bad, the narrative voice is consistently put-upon, angry and whiny with a soupcon of martyr complex. There are some good reviews here, and presumably they are not all friends of Ms. Plett. That said, perhaps I would start with her later book(s) in the hopes that she has improved with time.
I’ll need to reflect more on this, but for now: A brutally honest look into the trans perspective (well, a white trans experience). Some of these stories were far too similar to one another, but I did think the second half of the collection was a lot stronger than the first (things changed up a bit).
I am a huge fan of Plett and can't be relied on not to inflate this collection's rating, so I decline to give one. A Safe Girl to Love is noticeably rougher, angrier, and bitterer than her later work –– sometimes, this worked for me, and other times, it didn't. While this collection wasn't a slam dunk, I find immense value in reading it, particularly in the context of Plett's career as a writer who weaves between the speculative and the literary, the commercial and the slightly-more-obscure. We see in this collection threads she will address more fully in later texts.
A Dream of A Woman floored me, and I adored Little Fish, too. I can't say this one excited me as much, but I"m glad I read it. If you're interested in the history and trajectory of trans lit, especially trans canlit, and/or want to complete Plett's bibliography, give this one a try!
I cannot for the life of me remember who recommended this book to me, but I'm glad I got it. It's a collection of short stories all featuring trans main characters. The majority of the stories are set in various parts of Canada, New York City or the Pacific Northwest, all places I believe that author has also lived. These are stories of relationships, some sexy, some messy, most complicated- relationships with lovers, exes, parents, friends, pets and cities. My favorite story was the longest one which takes up the center part of the book, "Not Bleak". The narrator is Carla, a bookstore manager, who lives with a long term open partner, Liam, who is funny, slutty, and very kind. I loved the dynamic between the two of them perhaps most of all the couples in the whole book. Liam and Carla often host young queer kids, many of whom have been kicked out by their families. They let these kids sleep on their couch until they get their barrings in the new city and can find a job and place to stay. They host a kid named Zeke who has not yet decided if they are a boy or a girl, but seems nice, followed by a much less respectful guest who Carla barely talks to. A few days later, Liam realizes their passports have been stolen, as well as some other items. They confront Zeke over it, but she has no idea what they are talking about. It ends up being just another shitty break and life goes on. But then Zeke starts hanging out at Carla's bookstore, asking for reading recommendations and inviting her to lunch. Then Zeke asks Carla a huge favor, the kind that Carla has no interest in fulfilling, except she kind of can't say no. And the story spins out from there. You have to pick up the book if you want to know what happens next :)
Some of the tightest most readable strongly voiced prose I've read in a long time. Lots of everyday kinky sex, which I don't actually see that often in queer lit. Highlights for me included the lezzie ones, the one where the cat talks, and the one with the Mennonite grandpa & passport theft.
There are some gorgeous stories in this somewhat uneven collection. I loved "Not Bleak", "Winning", "Lizzy & Annie" and "Other Women" (which I'd already read in Topside's anthology The Collection). I was really touched by the characters in these four stories, the richly rendered relationships - between a young woman and her mother who is also a trans woman, between old and new friends, between lovers - and the vivid sense of place. They feel meticulously paced to create this feeling of being young in a wide, cold place, and the sort of expansive, untethered, anxious hope I associate with that kind of landscape.
It might just be that I've come to prefer longer short stories where the characters have a more time to unfurl and bloom. Though sometimes I still really love brief but powerful stories. But the shorter pieces here feel sketchy, lightweight. Less satisfying. I especially felt that "Youth" was a weak piece to end with, and too similar in its emotional range to "A Carried Ocean Breeze" which I liked more. "Real Equality: A Manifesto" is not a bad piece in itself but a weird fit with the other stories - it kind of makes it feel like a portfolio of the author's writing rather than a cohesive collection.
i read most of this in 2 sittings after finding out it's one of the books they found in Chelsea Manning's cell and sent her to solitary for 🙃 anyway, the protagonist of every story felt the same which i quite dislike in a short story collection. BUT it's gotta be the first time the protag is always a trans bookstore clerk who likes her nipples obliterated and who am i to argue against that really
Plett’s writing always feels so tangible and real to me. I unsurprisingly loved this, though I do wish I had read it before her other works as it seems there is a definitive amount of progression in her writing voice. Thank you to Arsenal Pulp for the complimentary copy.
The best moments of this collection are when trans characters who are lost and confused voice the truths that guide how and why they live. Many of them express how they have learned, despite deeply traumatic experiences, to find their own imperfect notions of safety, stability, and love. Most of the stories in the second half really stuck with me, the others less so.
In just a handful of stories, Plett’s fiction goes across the country, from hip bars in New York to snow-buried apartments in the heartland to cloud-covered neighborhoods in Oregon. Her characters all struggle in some way; sometimes they get it together, but not always. Things get dicey, but I never got a feeling like they were hopeless.
And maybe the thing about her fiction is the thing she doesn’t do: patronize. Her characters, mostly trans women, exist fully formed. They’re not one-dimensional cutouts there to prop up stereotypes, they’re not window dressing. And, the more I think about it, the more it seems exactly the point.
Her stories pick up on these ideas, the forming of identity and coping and what happens after (or, in one exception, before) people transition. Again, the journey isn’t central and you can see how her arguments work in her fiction. The stories are about people and what happens after everyone says “Oh, you’re so brave,” or “Wow, that’s inspiring.” They’re about living. Sometimes it means doing sex work on top of a regular job (“Portland, Oregon”), sometimes it means a messy relationship (“Lizzie and Annie”) and sometimes it means taking the first nervous steps (“Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success”).
The knockout story here is “Not Bleak,” which follows two women on a trip up to Mennonite country in rural Manitoba. Plett vividly captures the setting and attitude and even the language of the prairies. At times, it felt almost cinematic. But it also captures a feeling of being out of place; Zeke comes from a world that doesn’t disapprove of trans people, but can’t even process they exist; in the absence of understanding is a void of even recognition. Or as Plett writes:
“Zeke opened the door and I jerked face up from my hands. Woah, I said. Her face, so naturally calm, suddenly moved into an expression of glumness. Yeah, she said. She was in shirtsleeves and grey cotton pants, and her shoulder-length black hair was neatly slicked back. Zeke was on the pale side to begin with – which is saying something for our stupid corner of the world – but with her soft girl-body, already so unassuming, and now passing for a boy, she looked truly ghostly. Like she was a wraith, something you could put a hand through.” (pg 145)
At the same time, there are moments of levity. Between the larger stories are smaller changes of pace: a guide to buying female clothing, a manifesto on true literary equality (“Sarah Schulman next to David Sedaris!,” shouts the narrator) among others.
All in all, a great debut by a great new voice. Recommended!
I did enjoy reading this short fiction collection of stories about trans women, but I am not sure I would have enjoyed it without the fact that the stories were specifically about trans women. As it was, I am quite glad that I read it. While some of the stories meant little to me, some of them had beautiful, touching moments.
My complaints---besides the fact that Plett's refusal to use quotation marks makes the dialogue quite confusing at times---mostly stem from the fact that I found it hard to identify with her characters, all of whom seemed very similar. I think that every primary character in this collection, except the cat, gets very drunk on a fairly regular basis, and at least most of them smoke tobacco or marijuana or both regularly. On some level, it felt like the book was equating being trans with being in a particular queer subculture that I have no real contact with or desire to be part of.
There was also a certain class...awkwardness?...in my feelings about the book. I've never been poor in the way nearly all the characters are, and on one hand, it did make it harder for me to identify with their lives. At the same time, though, it definitely made me feel guilty for the fact that I'm not poor, and like I'm cheating by remaining closeted to avoid their lifestyle.
I was moved by all of these stories and their characters, which are written in a kind of punk/grassroots realism that hits maybe between Michelle Tea and Imogen Binnie: slice of life with a lot of wry humor and one talking cat. The main thing that is notable from a political angle is that this book collects stories about trans women across a wide spectrum of identities and experiences, none of them constructed as either miserably abject or reductively "empowered." One of my favorites explores the relationship and tensions between a mother and daughter, both of whom are trans. Written with love and care; an important book.
A short fiction collection. My favourite was the Equality Manifesto— it was short and the satirical tone was pitch perfect. In the other stories a blurry succession of tall girls wake up hungover and drink too much. So blurry. Despite everything tall girl never goes to AA or reaches out for help or shows much self-awareness. Not one of the stories ever has anything to do with perhaps drinking less. But there sure is lots of blackout drinking. Wake up and repeat. Some people write down their dreams; this collection felt like someone writing down their hangovers.
I really enjoy Casey Plett's writing (I'd recommend "Little Fish" if you haven't read it yet), and she's great at writing interesting, empathetic, and flawed (in a very human way) characters. So rarely are trans women allowed to be complicated people, that the short story collection stands out for that alone. I'll admit - I don't love short stories as a genre, and tend to get disappointed when you just start getting to know a character before it's onto the next story. So it's unsurprising that my favorite stories were the longer ones, and also the ones that played around with structure (i.e., the parody speech) or genre (i.e., the cat story). I'll say that some of the themes, settings, and characters can get a little repetitive - but then something fresh or unexpected happens, and you're drawn back in. No one author should be expected to speak for all trans women everywhere, so the fact that some of the narrators share similar backgrounds or perspectives isn't a downside per say. Plett is a great writer with a strong point of view, and I would definitely recommend "A Safe Girl to Love."
I'm really glad this collection exists, since own voices stories that center trans women are not nearly common enough. I had a hard time with this collection due to some unexpected sexual violence right off the bat and throughout that all went unaddressed, and a general sense of the characters not being well-loved by themselves or others. I know that is often part of the experience of being trans in a world that is too often violent and hateful toward trans folks, and I would never want to tell anyone to sugarcoat their experience for me, it just made the book difficult to get through for me. On a much less serious note, I did not enjoy the lack of quotation marks, but I respect that stylistic choices are up to the writer. There are some really powerful moments, complex characters, and unique stories, perhaps most notably one involving a talking cat frustratedly caring for his beloved, struggling human while wishing she was more able to care for him.
So so terrific— all of my favourite stories were in the latter half of this collection (Portland, Oregon; Not Bleak; A Carried Ocean Breeze; Winning; Youth), but I feel like, while I didn’t love the first few, reading them helped me get the feel of Plett’s writing style so I was able to jump into the best ones without any barrier to entry.
Maybe it’s the English Lit major in me but I’ll never get tired of short stories about complicated interpersonal conflicts with poetic, inconclusive endings, and Plett does them particularly well. Like yeah! DON’T wrap things up nicely!! Being alive is a generally complicated and ambivalent experience!!!
Trigger Warnings: cursing, car accident, alcohol, homophobia, transphobia, smoking, church, sex, drugs, sex work, porn, violence, harassment, parental abandonment, depression, self harm, self hate, past suicide attempt, sexual assault
Representation: Transgender, Queer, Lesbian
A Safe Girl to Love is a book of eleven unique short stories featuring young trans women stumbling through loss, sex, harassment, and love in settings ranging from a rural Mennonite town to a hipster gay bar in Brooklyn. These stories, shiny with whiskey and prairie sunsets, rattling subways and neglected cats, show growing up as a trans girl can be charming, funny, frustrating, or sad, but never will it be predictable.
This ALC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
I was not a huge fan of this story. The book is written well and the characters are very realistic, I just felt like it wasn’t my jam. The audiobook is narrated well and I liked the connections between stories.
(You can read this review and more like it on my blog.)
cw: sexual assault, kink
This was such a lovely collection of short stories, focusing on trans women. Most of the stories had a pretty emotional impact on me, which says a lot about the writing. Each story is fairly quick to get through. While I enjoyed it, a lot of the characters kind of melded together for me and I felt that there was too much of an emphasis on a certain kind of sexuality (almost all of the sex was very rough, which could be triggering for some). I dropped one star for those two reasons.