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?