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2015, vol. 69

Review: A Safe Girl to Love

by Daniel Shank Cruz

Daniel Shank Cruz is an associate professor of English at Utica College in Utica, New York.

Casey Platt, A Safe Girl to Love. New York: Topside Press, 2014.

<cite>A Safe Girl to Love</cite> by Casey PlettA Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

Casey Plett’s first book, A Safe Girl to Love, contains eleven short stories that depict transgender women in contemporary Canada and the U.S. Its publisher, Topside Press, is the leading publisher of trans writing in North America, and Plett’s book fits smoothly within Topside’s tradition of producing high quality texts. It is available both in print and as an ebook.

Readers of Mennonite Life will be interested in A Safe Girl to Love because of Plett’s Manitoba Mennonite background. Two of the stories include explicitly Mennonite characters, Other Women and Not Bleak, the book’s best story. In Other Women, Sophie, who has recently transitioned, returns from Oregon to Manitoba for a family reunion, which includes an awkward visit to church. In Not Bleak, Zeke also returns home to visit her grandfather, but chooses to go as a man so as not to upset him even though she has transitioned to being a woman. The two stories provide an interesting contrast to one another. Sophie is determined to be herself and thus faces persecution from some of her relatives, while Zeke chooses to hide her identity and is welcomed by her family, but chastised by her trans community and experiences mental anguish as a result of her deception. Both characters are a thought-provoking new twist on the trope of Mennonite-as-martyr and should cause Mennonite readers to think hard about how the institutional Mennonite community has and continues to participate in the systemic violence of transphobia.

The collection’s portrayal of Mennonites (who are all Canadians, though part of Not Bleak takes place in the U.S.) is not a positive one, but it is not an angry one, either. It is an honest depiction of transphobia in the Mennonite community. The fact that some of the stories draw on Plett’s Mennonite background rather than it being silenced completely may be read as a sign of hope because the stories show a desire for dialogue between the trans and Mennonite communities.

A Safe Girl to Love is an important work not just in the Mennonite literary tradition, but in the North American queer literary tradition as well. It references writers from each field such as Miriam Toews and Sandra Birdsell in the former and Jeanette Winterson in the latter. This element of Plett’s writing is significant because the collection acknowledges her writerly forebears while at the same time mapping new territory in both areas. Aside from the fact that Plett is one of the few queer Mennonite writers (though this subfield of Mennonite literature is beginning to gain momentum) and A Safe Girl to Love helps make the field more inclusive, many of the stories take place in urban environments, a type of space still underrepresented in Mennonite literature. As far as its queer elements, one strength of the book lays in its convincing portraits of both the Canadian and U.S. trans communities. Plett has spent a significant amount of time living in both countries, and thus her work includes a valuable transnational element that is missing in much queer literature. National boundaries are one target of queer theory’s anti-hegemonic worldview, and it is refreshing to have fiction that embodies this value.

All of the stories speak powerfully to what it is like to be trans in North America today, but Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success and How to Stay Friends deserve special mention as how-to guides for elements of the transition process. Twenty Hot Tips describes the process of buying a dress for the first time, and is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. How to Stay Friends is about meeting one’s ex after one has transitioned and how to deal with their uncomfortable responses to one’s new gender. It is more cutting than Twenty Hot Tips, reminding readers just how transphobic even the most well-meaning cis people (i.e., people who are not trans) can be.

Another of A Safe Girl to Love’s highlights is How Old Are You Anyway? The story’s depiction of sex work (its protagonist Lisa makes a living performing an erotic web cam show) and BDSM (bondage, discipline, Domination/submission, sadism, and masochism) in one of the book’s longest sex scenes is rare in fiction in general, let alone Mennonite fiction. These aspects of the story feel grittily realistic rather than being tawdry. The story portrays those like Lisa on the sexual margins as fully human rather than as the freaks or sinners many people would take them to be. This is one example of the book’s activist nature (a common theme in both Mennonite and queer literature), which never becomes preachy, but instead feels like an organic part of the work.

One of the collection’s best stories is Portland, Oregon, which is told from the perspective of the main character Adrienne’s cat as her life slowly unravels due to alcoholism. The cat, Glenn, is able to talk, but this attribute is ultimately useless because Adrienne consistently ignores his advice about how to make things better. Considering Mennonites’ agrarian roots, it is surprising that animals have received very little attention in Mennonite literature. Portland, Oregon fills this gap via Glenn, who is one of the most memorable characters in the book. There is also very little magical realism in the queer literary tradition, making the story an important addition in this area as well. What is especially striking about Portland, Oregon is that its premise does not feel gimmicky or forced, and it fits seamlessly with the tone of the rest of the stories despite its unique conceit.

As with any short story collection, some stories are stronger than others, but overall A Safe Girl to Love is excellent; all of the stories are worth reading. My only caution for readers is that it is in some ways an arduous book to read. All of the stories are intense, and the characters’ lives are frequently unhappy. Trans life is difficult because of rampant transphobia, which, when it does not manifest itself in physical violence, remains present in the threat of this violence as well as in the need for trans persons to constantly explain themselves to others, and A Safe Girl to Love does not shy away from this fact. The collection will leave readers feeling raw and perhaps exhausted, but also enriched and enlightened and better for the experience, and that is the best we can hope for when we encounter literature. I read A Safe Girl to Love straight through in one sitting because it is so compelling, and though I would not necessarily recommend this reading strategy to others because of the stories’ intensity, I recommend the book itself without reservation. Here’s hoping it is Plett’s first of many.