Magic in Unexpected Places: A Review of The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard
It seems trans people only get a real audience within the publishing industry to tell that one story which fascinates cisgender audiences as spectacle.
When I got my Advance Reader Copy of The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, the inaugural release from Topside Press, a new independent press devoted to publishing much-needed literary fiction with trans protagonists, the only way I can begin to describe my excitement is to liken it to the excitement I would have felt at receiving an Advance Reader Copy of the much anticipated final Harry Potter book. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Topside Press’s inaugural publication, The Collection since the call for submissions was posted back in 2011. And in my world, it’s not an exaggeration to say that The Collection is the most anticipated literary release since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
If this sounds a little extreme, you probably haven’t been paying close attention to the world of trans literature so let me explain: Up to this point, trans literature has consisted largely of academic gender theory, tell-all autobiographies and heart-wrenching memoir thinly disguised as fiction. Trans characters show up in literature as plot devices, examples of a truly enlightened (or truly disturbed, depending upon the author) state of living, or as heroic gender warriors who have accomplished nothing in our lives as important as bravely making it through transition. Although so many of the trans people with whom I am lucky enough to be acquainted are talented artists, writers, activists, storytellers, comedians and people of the world, it seems we only get a real audience within the publishing industry to tell that one story which fascinates cisgender audiences as spectacle or example but speaks little to the diversity of our experiences in the world.
The Collection, edited by Tom Léger & Riley MacLeod, kicks off Topside Press’s mission to bring those untold stories into the world. When I began reading, I was hungry for the idea that people who looked and existed in the world like the vast majority of my close friends and myself (and many who looked nothing like us!) could exist in literature, but I didn’t know what to anticipate beyond mere representation.
From the start of the first story, what I found upon reading The Collection was magical. Imogen Binnie captures a beautifully vulnerable self-awareness in “I Met A Girl Named Bat Who Met Jeffery Palmer,” as her protagonist’s Internet-obsession with the deceased creator of a kind-of-hokey futuristic version of new-agey meditations who she only ironically admits to idolizing is squashed as she meets a woman who has met him. She sets the tone of an everyday sort of magic and the magic within everyday existence for the rest of the book book as she seamlessly transports readers into an imagined future that serves to make her protagonist’s quirkiness feel even more painfully real.
The tone of magical reality continues all the way through the end, when Adam Halwitz closes the book with a reminder that our most unbelievable experiences happen in everyday real life as he transports us into that exciting world we all find ourselves in when nature becomes so big that it takes away the modern conveniences upon which we rely. He fills readers with that Wizard of Oz-esque electrifying chaos and excitement that can only happen when a thunder storm takes out the power that one time you really need it as readers join the protagonists overcome nature as they venture out into the world to tend to some awkward trans-related business they would have preferred to tend to in the comfort of their own homes.
In one of the most surprisingly emotional moments of The Collection, comedian and PrettyQueer’s own Red Durkin brings readers into the world of an ambitious young woman who is driven to leave her small-minded hometown by becoming a competitive eater. The entire story takes place as the inner monologue of the protagonist during the Hooter’s World Wing Eating Championship, the contest which she hopes will jump-start her career. While such an outrageous premise for a story written by one of the funniest people to live is a perfect combination for a story that will have readers on the floor laughing (and the story definitely is funny), Durkin tells one of the most poignantly human stories in The Collection. “A Roman Incident” is really a story of body positivity as the protagonist uses those things about her fat and trans body which marginalize her and grant her automatic outsider status in her community as the sources of her power as she strives for greatness. She does not learn self-acceptance in spite of those things which make her different, but uses those differences as a secret weapon as she claws her way out of the communities which have told her her differences were flaws to begin with. I found myself actually sobbing, not laughing at the unexpected magic I found in the pages as the competitive eating clock ticked and I rooted for Durkin’s protagonist to keep herself from vomiting for just a few more seconds! (Incidentally, if you simply can’t wait until October 16 for a taste of all this magic, A Roman Incident is available to read online as a preview for what’s to come.)
The I found magic in unexpected places within the pages of The Collection is the same sort of magic which made me such an avid reader in the first place. Although I loved reading from an early age, reading Harry Potter and discovering the power of magic in books as a young adult was what really turned me into a reader. Those books taught me that the best fiction has the power to transport me to worlds where the fantastical and other-worldly elements of our stories can be the most believable while those moments which bring us the most genuinely magical experiences might be those which obey every known law of natural physics. I have found that my favourite literature finds creative ways of uncovering the magic of real life and focuses on the human moments in magical worlds. The 28 authors who have shared their stories in The Collection do just that, bringing magical moments into their worlds into their worlds in the most unexpected places.
I have anxiously awaited Topside’s inaugural release with a curiosity of what will define a uniquely trans literary voice and The Collection has not only set a high bar of literary quality in the canon of trans literature, but has begun to define a distinctively trans voice in literature that moves beyond the mere mechanics of our transitions. Magic exists in truly wonderful fiction as a way to explain the things in our lives that are too real to explain within the laws and orders of the world as we know it. Navigating a world that has trouble relating to our lives as a trans people inspires a necessary whimsy and creativity in the everyday lives of ordinary people that uncovers those beautiful moments where magic and real life become indistinguishable. The Collection has distinguished a unique literary voice within the canon of trans literary fiction that is to come and I can’t wait to see what Topside Press will offer readers of trans literature in the future!
Topside Press will be releasing The Collection October 16 of this year. You can pre-order a copy of the book here. Topside Press is making copies of The Collection available to trans people in prison for free, so don’t miss your opportunity to help trans prisoners such as CeCe McDonald and the countless other trans people stuck in the prison industrial complex, so don’t miss out on your opportunity to help Topside do this: simply select “Prisoner Paperback” and checkout normally.
The official New York City release for The Collection will be on October 16, at Housing Works Bookstore at 126 Crosby Street, and is free. Additionally, Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City will be hosting a landmark event on October 18 with Imogen Binnie, Donna Ostrowsky, Ryka Aoki and Red Durkin called “Staking Our Claim: Trans Women’s Literature in the 21st Century” also free, and open to the public. Other Topside Events related to The Collection can be found at http://www.topsidepress.com/events