Casey Plett: On Cre­at­ing Com­mu­nity in Mean­while, Else­where and Lit­tle Fish


Casey Plett is the Lambda Lit­er­ary Award-win­ning au­thor of the short fic­tion col­lec­tion A Safe Girl to Love and the re­cip­i­ent of an Hon­our of Dis­tinc­tion from the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerg­ing Writ­ers in Canada. She wrote a col­umn on tran­si­tion­ing for McSweeney’s, and her re­views and es­says have ap­peared in the New York Times, Ma­clean’s, The Wal­rus, and Plen­i­tude.

While Casey was in Van­cou­ver to present at Grow­ing Room 2018, I spoke with her about work­ing in pub­lish­ing, win­ning a Lambda, co-edit­ing the an­thol­ogy Mean­while, Else­where: Sci­ence Fic­tion and Fan­tasy by Trans­gen­der Writ­ers (Top­side Press, 2017), and her novel, Lit­tle Fish. Lit­tle Fish (Arse­nal Pulp Press, 2018) is the story of Wendy, a trans woman liv­ing in Win­nipeg who learns that her late grand­fa­ther may have been trans and starts to ques­tion whether she could be­long among her ru­ral Men­non­ite rel­a­tives af­ter all. The novel is a nu­anced and touch­ing ex­plo­ration of fam­ily, com­mu­nity, faith—and the lives, loves, and re­silience of trans women.

ROOM: What is it like work­ing in pub­lish­ing while at the same time be­ing a pub­lished au­thor? I’ve heard it can be a bit dis­cour­ag­ing some­times to see how the process works, how many manuscripts end up on the slush pile, etc. Has that been your ex­pe­ri­ence, or has it been pretty re­moved from your own prac­tice?

CP: I knew the in­sides of pub­lish­ing be­fore I got my job, so none of that was ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing or dis­con­cert­ing. One thing, though, is it has def­i­nitely made it harder for me to write be­cause all day I deal with [books and writ­ing]. When I had other jobs, I’d fin­ish work and say to my­self, “Okay, I’m to­tally down to sit down at a com­puter and get a lot of this stuff out” and write things, and I had en­ergy for that. Now I’m like, “Fuck . . . I don’t want to think about words at all.” So, it has been sort of dif­fi­cult and I haven’t sorted it out yet, but not for that rea­son [you men­tioned].

ROOM: A few years ago, you won the Lambda Lit­er­ary Award—con­grat­u­la­tions. Can you re­call what your thoughts were when you found out that you’d won?

CP: Holy fuck, I was so sur­prised [ laughs]. Some­one got a pic­ture of me look­ing like I was about to cry, which was to­tally how I felt. I had writ­ten a thing be­fore­hand, and I was so glad I did, be­cause I’m sure I would have had no fuck­ing clue what to say oth­er­wise. I ran up there, I shrieked re­ally loudly, and I ac­tu­ally grabbed the em­cee’s script on the way off and then I had to hand it back to him at the end. It was cer­tainly hum­bling and over­whelm­ing in a good way.

What was odder, though, was the af­ter­math. What I didn’t re­al­ize was that straight peo­ple know what the Lam­mys are. It was a weird thing to watch, be­cause peo­ple who I would not have as­sumed to know any­thing about my writ­ing would come to up to me to talk about the book. My book had come out a year be­fore the Lam­mys, and a lot of trans peo­ple knew about it, which was su­per cool, and I was mostly read­ing for trans au­di­ences—but then I got this award, and then all of a sud­den straight peo­ple started talk­ing about it and they thought it was a new book. And it was like I was sud­denly get­ting taken more se­ri­ously, which was nice, but is also maybe not a great re­flec­tion of how we treat th­ese kinds of things.

ROOM: Could you take me through the process of edit­ing Mean­while, Else­where? I’m par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in your and Cat Fitz­patrick’s de­ci­sions on which pieces to in­clude, and the or­der to print them in.

CP: First of all, Cat and I made a con­scious de­ci­sion that we were go­ing to read ev­ery sin­gle sub­mis­sion. And we were floored with how many we got, we got—oh man, I can’t re­mem­ber—there were over three hun­dred. When we were read­ing, we re­ally wanted pieces that ex­cited us, pieces that we felt were of­fer­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. Like we said in the af­ter­word, I think we were look­ing for—and this is more Cat’s thing, be­cause Cat’s more of an ex­pe­ri­enced, hard­core sci-fi reader than I am—pieces that, in­stead of just be­ing sci-fi sto­ries that hap­pened to have trans peo­ple in them, of­fered a new and in­ter­est­ing ad­di­tion to the genre.

The only other con­crete thing that we tried to do is to in­clude as many racial­ized writ­ers in the col­lec­tion as pos­si­ble, be­cause, in a cer­tain way, Mean­while, Else­where was a fol­low-up to the first an­thol­ogy that Top­side put out, The Col­lec­tion, which was a heav­ily white an­thol­ogy. I would say we didn’t suc­ceed in this ef­fort as much as we would like, but it was a goal of ours.

As for the or­der to print the pieces in—thank­fully that was all up to me. I find it so in­ter­est­ing how so many peo­ple who pub­lish col­lec­tions don’t care about the or­der in which their sto­ries ap­pear. Mean­while, I’m like, “No, it’s so im­por­tant! I have to know ex­actly what’s com­ing first!” So that was some­thing we were very con­scious of while se­lect­ing sto­ries: we wanted to cre­ate a book that felt like a holis­tic thing from end to end, with pieces that worked with and talked to each other, al­most like an al­bum. And I tried to ar­range the pieces so that, when one piece ended, there was a nat­u­ral flow into the next one, rather than feel­ing abrupt, or too much of a turn. I had such a clear sense of that; even while we were still con­firm­ing con­trib­u­tors, I knew what I wanted to start the col­lec­tion with, and I knew what I wanted the col­lec­tion to end with.

ROOM: In the af­ter­word, you and Cat talk about cu­rat­ing an an­thol­ogy that cen­tres trans read­ers. What did this mean for you, and what sug­ges­tions do you have for ed­i­tors who are also seek­ing to cen­tre a par­tic­u­lar au­di­ence?

CP: For one, we tried to cre­ate a space where writ­ers didn’t have to ex­plain them­selves to cis peo­ple. From things as sim­ple as ter­mi­nol­ogy, to big­ger, tougher things that a cis per­son may not have come across be­fore. We en­cour­aged peo­ple not to ex­plain them­selves, but we still had to nudge writ­ers, and let them know it was okay to talk about cer­tain top­ics. I think it’s re­ally pow­er­ful when trans read­ers have the op­por­tu­nity to read trans writ­ers. Plus, I feel when you write for a small group of peo­ple who share your own ex­pe­ri­ences, it makes the writ­ing more in­ti­mate, and bet­ter writ­ing for ev­ery­one, ba­si­cally.

And that’s the thing about writ­ing: there is no “uni­ver­sal” writ­ing. For ex­am­ple, when I was thir­teen, I read Philip Roth—which is a ter­ri­ble de­ci­sion for lots of other rea­sons—and I did not need to have the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in a post-war Jewish-Amer­i­can fam­ily to be in­ter­ested in the book, and to get things out of it. There were things about it I didn’t un­der­stand, and of course never will, and that’s fine. There’s no way to write some­thing that ev­ery per­son will con­nect with and un­der­stand. That’s sort of a fucked-up no­tion that doesn’t ex­ist.

So, that’s kind of a ba­sic, boil­er­plate an­swer. Other than that, we tried to en­cour­age writ­ers who had ex­pe­ri­ences of marginal­iza­tion that were dif­fer­ent from ours to ex­plore those things with­out wor­ry­ing about how we might nec­es­sar­ily un­der­stand them. While it can be dif­fi­cult and fraught, I think it’s im­por­tant for ed­i­tors to trust writ­ers when they say that a de­tail from their writ­ing is true, and comes from their com­mu­nity—even if it’s some­thing that the ed­i­tor them­self hasn’t per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced. I think it’s a skill that all ed­i­tors could ben­e­fit from learn­ing.

ROOM: You men­tioned in an in­ter­view that some of the sub­mis­sions to the an­thol­ogy were the first pieces ever pub­lished by the au­thor. What was it like to be able to pub­lish some­one for the first time?

CP: I felt like it was big re­spon­si­bil­ity. There’s no way to an­swer this ques­tion with­out sound­ing like a back-pat­ting ass­hole, but, ba­si­cally, it made me just want to work re­ally hard to make sure that the book came out over the fin­ish line, that it had the best writ­ing, and that it re­ceived the most at­ten­tion that it could.

It’s funny, be­cause with my sec­ond book com­ing out, I keep think­ing, “Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to hate it, ev­ery­one’s go­ing to fi­nally re­al­ize how bad a per­son I am,

ev­ery­one’s go­ing to fi­nally re­al­ize what a crappy writer I am”—you know, the stan­dard stuff for writ­ers. But when the an­thol­ogy came out, I was like, “Fuck yeah! Ev­ery­one’s got to read this! It’s so good and you all need to un­der­stand how amaz­ing all th­ese writ­ers are!” So that was nice.

ROOM: Your novel, Lit­tle Fish, takes place in the Men­non­ite com­mu­nity in Man­i­toba, which Wendy [the pro­tag­o­nist] de­scribes as sur­pris­ingly boom­ing and con­tem­po­rary. Can you take me through the cre­ative choice to set the story within this par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity?

CP: I would say that most of the book is not ac­tu­ally set in the Men­non­ite com­mu­nity, be­cause it’s mostly set in the mid­dle of Win­nipeg, but that com­mu­nity is con­stantly hov­er­ing over both Wendy and Sophie [an­other Men­non­ite trans girl]. And, to a cer­tain ex­tent, Wendy’s dad, ex­cept her dad’s like, “Fuck that, I don’t care.”

When I was a kid, I lived a lot of my life in a small town in south­ern Man­i­toba. My mom is from a small town in south­ern Man­i­toba, and I spent my child­hood trav­el­ling back and forth be­tween Win­nipeg and our town, un­til we moved away from our town for good when I was eleven.

Also, tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion Men­non­ite lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, there’s a tra­di­tion—es­pe­cially in the works of au­thors like Miriam Toews, Rudy Wiebe, and San­dra Bird­sell—in which th­ese small Men­non­ite towns are of­ten de­picted as be­ing very re­moved from the world. Typ­i­cally, th­ese books of­ten in­volve some­one start­ing out in the coun­try, where it’s ex­tremely re­li­gious, and then go­ing to the city and find­ing that there’s still some­thing about their Men­non­ite cul­ture and tra­di­tions that they can’t break free from.

So, when I came back to Man­i­toba as an adult, I was sur­prised by how dif­fer­ent the land­scape looked from what I re­mem­bered and had read. It was weird: there were liquor stores in Stein­bach (which had been dry since the town was first founded), and a store that sold fire­places. And th­ese towns were grow­ing—the pop­u­la­tion was go­ing up, which is not the usual story for ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in the U.S. or Canada, and there was money. And yet, at the same time, the politi­cians from that area were still in­cred­i­bly big­oted, and there was a lot of suf­fo­ca­tion there. It was such a strange jux­ta­po­si­tion, and it scram­bled the story that I had told my­self

all my life about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Men­non­ite town and sec­u­lar city. And that’s why th­ese ques­tions hang over Wendy’s head in the novel.

ROOM: Could you also speak about the con­trast be­tween the com­mu­nity that Wendy has in Win­nipeg ver­sus the rel­a­tive iso­la­tion of th­ese small Men­non­ite towns?

CP: Es­pe­cially in the queer com­mu­nity, we talk a lot about cho­sen fam­ily ver­sus fam­ily of ori­gin. And part of what I was hop­ing to do by con­trast­ing Wendy’s friends and Wendy’s fam­ily of ori­gin [Anna, a fam­ily friend, and her dad] is to show that Wendy chooses them as well. There are peo­ple who, as adults with fam­ily-ofo­ri­gin ties, make the ac­tive choice to have re­la­tion­ships with each other.

This is key be­cause, for the most part, Wendy has fore­stalled the pos­si­bil­ity that peo­ple of older Men­non­ite gen­er­a­tions could have any­thing to of­fer her, be­cause many of them re­jected her for be­ing trans, or at the least seemed to love her less. But when she finds out from Anna that her grand­fa­ther might have been trans, it reawak­ens this hope for com­mu­nity and con­nec­tion within Wendy. And, af­ter she goes on this jour­ney to learn more about her grand­fa­ther, there’s a mo­ment at the end of the novel where Wendy re­al­izes, “What if I had some­one who was from the same place as I am, and who held the same val­ues that I do, and who was some­one I could speak to hon­estly? What would my life be like then?” And it’s pretty in­tense be­cause just as she’s re­al­iz­ing this, she also knows that although that would have been great, it’s some­thing that she may never have. Or rather, it’s left am­bigu­ous. We don’t know for sure.

ROOM: In the novel, Wendy says, “You al­ways had to be on your guard. It didn’t mat­ter how of­ten you passed, it could al­ways be taken away. Al­ways. She’d never be lit­tle, she’d never be fish. It could al­ways be taken away.” It seems like maybe the ti­tle comes from this quote, but I didn’t pick up on the ref­er­ence, so I’m won­der­ing if you could tell me a lit­tle more.

CP: First of all, “fish” is a drag term, gen­er­ally used to re­fer to a male-as­signed per­son who passes for a cis­gen­der fe­male in this easy, al­most preter­nat­u­ral way. So, the point is, that’s not go­ing to hap­pen for Wendy. And even when it does hap­pen, it’s not some­thing that she can count on, or it’s con­di­tional.

But since you asked, that’s only one of the things about the ti­tle. I didn’t re­ally ex­pect there to be that many things be­hind the ti­tle, but there are sev­eral con­nec­tions, such as: it refers to a line to the song “Vi­o­let” by Hole, which Wendy lis­tens to at key points in the novel. There’s also the phrase “big fish in a lit­tle pond,” ex­cept the joke there is that Wendy and her friends are like lit­tle fish in a lit­tle pond. Lastly, I had a friend who asked, “Is it be­cause Wendy drinks like a fish?” and I was like, “I didn’t think about that, but sure, that ac­tu­ally makes tons of sense, too” [ laughs].

ROOM: One of the epigraphs you use is “I don’t think any­one re­ally knows how they look.” Through­out the book, there are many ex­am­ples of how one’s out­ward ap­pear­ance does or does not say some­thing about who the per­son re­ally is. For ex­am­ple, I’m think­ing of when Wendy looks in the fam­ily photo al­bums for ev­i­dence that her grand­fa­ther may have been trans. Could you speak to this idea?

CP: Although Wendy does look in the photo al­bums, there’s never any way to know what was up with [her grand­fa­ther]. There’s pieces to fit to­gether, but noth­ing con­clu­sive. For ex­am­ple, the absence of her grand­fa­ther in pho­tos from the eight­ies could be ex­plained in mul­ti­ple ways. Anna would firmly say that it was be­cause of his re­li­gion: Henry, her grand­fa­ther, would have grown up with the be­lief that cam­eras were a sin and that “thou shall not take de­light in one­self ”—that was ac­tu­ally part of the church creed. For the most part, how­ever, this was some­thing that would have been left in the past as Henry grew up. But, upon see­ing his absence from the pho­tos, it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for Anna nor some­one else from the com­mu­nity to say, “Okay, well, it’s kind of weird. It’s an old rule, but sure.”

Mean­while, Wendy’s first re­ac­tion is, “Pssh. That was just an ex­cuse. I can see [the rea­son why he didn’t want to be in the pho­tos]—it was be­cause he was trans.” But, the thing is, even though a trans woman like Wendy would view the absence from the pho­tos and think, “I know what’s go­ing on here,” nei­ther Wendy or Anna would re­ally be wrong. Be­cause it’s very likely that Henry didn’t have lan­guage to de­scribe his feel­ings, but maybe just knew that “I feel so much bet­ter if I fol­low th­ese rules,” and felt that it was a godly thing to do, while ac­tu­ally also be­ing a way for him to deal with po­ten­tially be­ing trans. Those two things are not sep­a­rated. Which leads back to the epi­graph.

ROOM: Are there any char­ac­ters who see Wendy for who she re­ally is?

CP: I don’t think any­one to­tally does, but I think some peo­ple get close. I think that Raina does in a way that usu­ally is healthy, but not al­ways. I also think that Sophie sees Wendy in a re­ally in­tense way, which is part of the rea­son Wendy feels so emo­tion­ally con­nected to her, even though she hasn’t known her very long. I feel like her dad kind of gets her in a cer­tain sense, and I ac­tu­ally feel like her boss does, too. Lastly, in a way, Anna does see Wendy, too. Even when Wendy is mak­ing up stuff about her life and build­ing a false pic­ture of who she is for Anna, Anna sees cer­tain things about Wendy that no one else would think of, or would think are fool­ish or silly, and Wendy feels ex­traor­di­nar­ily val­i­dated by that.

ROOM: My last ques­tion is: if you could sum up the book in one word, what would it be?

CP: Peace.

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