Toward Creating a Trans Literary Canon


Arts & Culture

This fall, I’m teaching a course titled “Masculinity in Literature.” The small seminar is attended by men, all in their twenties, earning their college degrees while incarcerated. Before we began our discussion of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues—perhaps the only “canonical” trans book, if such a thing as a trans canon can be said to exist—we generated a partial list of gender terminology: transgender, transsexual, agender, two-spirit, trans woman, bigender, trans man, FTM, MTF, boi, femme, soft butch, cisgender. The students already knew, at least in rough contours, how these terms were used. They weren’t contentious. What was contentious: man and woman, and the course’s undergirding premise that reading texts about masculinity that have nothing to do with cisgender, heterosexual, white men can teach us a good deal about masculinities. As the discussion progressed, our collective sense of what determines “masculinity” and “maleness” decalcified. One student grew impatient. “Words have to mean something,” he said. “Being a man means something.” He wasn’t frustrated with the abstract possibilities of fluidity, with the notion that some people are trans, or with the idea that identification is not a given. Rather, his concern was that, if gender identity is mutable for others, then what does that mean for him, an adult man who has never questioned his gender? That is, if we refuse the idea of biological essentialism—if “men” and “women” are more than the sum of genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and chromosomes—what does that do to the definition of his own maleness?

On October 21, the New York Times published a piece titled, “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration.” The thrust of the article: the Trump administration may move toward defining gender as biological, immutable, and essentially determined by genitalia at birth, and transgender people could face a terrifying curtailing of civil protections and recognition as a result. As many people have said, such a move misunderstands the distinctions between gender and sex, and is viciously mean-spirited, a pathetic attempt to shore up support from a base whose hatred of “identity politics” manifests, paradoxically, as the inability to disconnect from them. In some ways, the redefinition under consideration by the Trump administration is what my student was arguing for: a coherent, unswerving, unshakable definition of gender that leaves no room for debate or deviance. You’re either a girl or you’re a boy, and how you feel about that is immaterial. Those words, and those roles, are left unexamined.

But that’s not how my conversation with this student ended. He didn’t define me out of his reality, or choose to see the inconvenience of my trans body, my self, as a challenge to him and to the way he has, for the last two decades, understood the world. He tried, instead, to work toward a definition of gender by which our different truths wouldn’t invalidate one another.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a corpus of texts that centers on trans writing. I’m apprehensive about the limitations inherent in canonization, mainly canon’s inadequate literary representation of difference as tokenism, and the prohibitive inaccessibility for those who can’t afford education at the highest levels. So it’s not a canon exactly, but a corpus. It’s something more like a body: mutable, evolving, flexible, open, exposed, exposing. It’s the opposite of erasure; it’s an inscription.

Here are eleven books that have meant a great deal to me as I’ve tried to learn about both my own transness and experiences less familiar to me. I hope they might be recognized, read, and shared—which is to say, never erased. 



Sympathetic Little Monster, by Cameron Awkward-Rich

Awkward-Rich’s poems are about haunting, being haunted, and what Jacques Derrida would call hauntology. His poems are about moving through space, or our tragic immobility in space, and the waiting that happens before movement begins, and again after it ends. His poems are haunted by the selves we were and might yet be, the selves that live in us, nested, intransigent, even through our alterations. His poems are also about grief, loss, and naming. What is perhaps most astonishing about Awkward-Rich’s work is how, in spite of writing so much about absence, he renders absence in its negative: as wholeness, fullness, fruition. His poems compress so much—loss, transition, racialization. They do not simplify these subjects, but rather point to the rich complexity elsewhere, that complexity we might not see (or might not want to see).

Get it? Gender is a country, a field of
signifying roses you can walk through, or
wear tucked behind your ear.

Eventually the flower wilts & you can
pick another, or burn the field, or turn
& run back across the tracks.



Anybody, by Ari Banias

Sexy, kaleidoscopic, askew (certainly not straight), Banias’s poems invoke multiplicities, the porousness of boundaries, and the impossibilities of hermetic boundedness. His poems are poems of encounters: real, imagined, fantasized, and feared. He assigns multiple meanings to single words, everything doubled. One poem, “A Version,” might just as well be “Aversion.” Each poem shivers with a lush, kinesthetic anticipation, the wild potential of the instant after you’ve taken a great gulp of air—the instant enjoyed, felt, endured, just before the jump.

About a third of the way through this collection, the poem “Being With You Makes Me Think About” begins like this:

We is something like a cloud. How big, how thick,
its shape—ambiguous. We is moving across
a magnificent sky. We see the sky all around us but
also, we can look down at our own hands.

But it ends like this:

There’s something to be said for individuality,
multiplied. The earth is breathing out through countless eyes
asking every possible ray of light to meet every possible rainstorm.
They do attract. And aloneness only keeps getting bigger.
One day we will tell all about it. At our own table.
There are things we cannot see. Most things. Most of all.



Exile and Pride, by Eli Clare

Clare’s essays on the body, disability, queerness, transness, rurality, abuse, and home draw most attentively from feminists of color writing in the eighties and nineties—activists and writers like Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Angela Davis, Nellie Wong, and Barbara Smith. Like theirs, Clare’s writing vigilantly considers the multiplying entanglements of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and ableism. His questions move beyond normative judgement, instead developing subterranean connections: “Because disability is one of the major consequences of war, we need an anti-war politics that doesn’t transform disability into a symbol of either patriotism or tragedy, a politics that thinks hard about disability. Who gets killed, and who becomes disabled? Who profits from that killing and disabling? Whose bodies are used as weapons, and whose are treated as expendable? What happens to the countless people shattered, broken, burned, terrorized?” Clare’s intersectional analysis—his insistence on situating the many complex beauties, harms, and difficult actualities in a knotted assemblage—provides a generous framework for thinking about home not just as it is, but as it might be. The home is, for Clare, the space of hurt and rejection, the place that nurtured us (or ought to have nurtured us) into being, and the body. But home is also something we might reform, recreate, and refigure: “The body as home, but only if it is understood that the stolen body can be reclaimed.”



Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

Some months ago, the poet Gizelle Fletcher recommended Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, to me. The novel—breathtaking, beautiful, virtually impossible to summarize—is about being an ogbanje, about growing up with “one foot on the other side.” I’m not sure that it’s correct to call this a narrative about transness—or, at least, not about transness in the Anglo-American sense of the word. It’s about an awareness of self-as-changeling (which might be, I suppose, one way of transgender thinking). The novel explores the serpentine, involute, unbearable presences of alterity within the body. This alterity isn’t a pathologized wrongness, but a multitude of selves, squeezed and pressed into an always-incoherent me. And then there is, also, the compound incoherences of family and generations, the staggering puncture of trauma.



Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg

Feinberg once wrote of hir novel: “[With] this novel I planted a flag: Here I am—does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it, not as an expression of individual ‘high’ art, but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet—a call to action.” Feinberg’s novel tracks Jess Goldberg, a young butch coming into her own in Buffalo in the fifties. Despite finding solidarity with other working-class butches, Jess and the members of her queer community face the unremitting presence of police brutality, chronic unemployment, and poverty. Taking hormones and passing as male is one way that Jess attempts to navigate unbearable conditions, though doing so is not without a loss (specifically, the loss of her female identity and community). As ever, Feinberg’s work is a reminder that the arc of history doesn’t always bend toward justice. Invoking Frederick Douglass, Feinberg underscores the truth of collective action: without struggle, there is no progress.



Trap Door, edited by Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, Johanna Burton

“We are living in a time of trans visibility. Yet we are also living in a time of anti-trans violence.” This book—a collection of conversations, dossiers, artwork, and essays—wrestles with that irony. Taken together, the pieces simultaneously attend to the traps of visual culture, the narratives that become fossilized, reified, retold, and representative, as well as to trap doors, utopian crawl spaces of escape, flumes to elsewhere, resistance, new visual syntaxes. Ultimately, the texts collected here chart new ways to tell our stories, to represent ourselves, our art, our archives, and our futures.



Mucus in My Pineal Gland, by Juliana Huxtable

This strange and wonderful book asks what it might look like to get outside gender and outside genre. It remains unclear to me whether this book is poetry, or something entirely different, as-of-yet nameless. Huxtable’s not interested in displacing or disregarding genre or gender—they’re essential to the book—but the poems, dialogues, and “voices” in this book experiment with time, agency, and fantasy. More than anything, this book is about feeling, or, more accurately, the difference between feeling and felt. It prods at feeling shame and feeling pleasure, feeling alone and feeling elsewhere, feeling too much and still wanting more.



Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, by Andrea Lawlor

If anyone has ever endeavored to reclaim the canonical—specifically Ovid and Gertrude Stein—not to queer it, but to genderqueer it, it is Lawlor. This book catches the feel of that wonderful beginning of Ovid’s telling of Daedalus and Icarus:

Hating the isle of Crete and the long years
Of exile, Daedalus was pining for
His native land, but seas on every side
Imprisoned him. ‘Though land and sea,’ he thought,
‘The king may bar to me, at least the sky
Is open; through the sky I’ll set my course.
Minos may own all else; he does not own
The air.’ So then to unimagined arts
He set his mind and altered nature’s laws.

Yet for Paul, antihero (and sometimes heroine) of Lawlor’s novel, shape-shifting doesn’t involve waxed wings. His native land is the lotus-eating Bay Area circa 1993, and his pining is not for home but for sex, as much as he can get. If “sexuality is a spectrum” has become, by now, old hat, Lawlor ratchets up the stakes and makes literal both gendered and sexed malleability. Paul, sometimes Polly, shifts fluidly from girl to boy and back. He can be various, both. He sets his own mind and alters nature’s laws. They don’t own the air.



Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg

Rosenberg’s novel, one of the first books by a trans author to be published by a major publishing house, reimagines Jack Sheppard—notorious English jailbreaker of the early eighteenth century—as a trans man. The novel is narrated by a trans academic who’s discovered unverified memoirs, perhaps written by Sheppard himself, and who must simultaneously protect the memoirs from the corporate university’s imminent glutting maw and determine their veracity. Rosenberg draws equally on contemporary critical theory, historical archives, and a remarkably impossible narrative to ask: What is an impossible subject? What is an impossible body? What conditions of community, communion, solidarity, and struggle allow the impossible to come into focus—if only for a moment, if only to escape to somewhere else?



The Life and Death of Latisha King, by Gayle Salamon

With transness facing the threat of possible governmental erasure, I can think of no book more important than Gayle Salamon’s The Life and Death of Laticia King. Salamon, a professor at Princeton (and, full disclosure, one of my dissertation advisors), takes as her subject the shooting of fifteen-year-old Latisha King by her classmate, fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney, in their high school classroom in 2008. Attending to the various acts of erasure that conditioned King’s death—and the national reporting about it afterward—Salamon brilliantly renders how gendered violence, trans erasure, and what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl calls “retroactive crossing out” can produce a transphobic imagination. The book is grounded in both phenomenology and contemporary U.S. policy, and Salamon’s use of critical phenomenology deepens and enhances what transphobia looks like: “This legal struggle is not about bathrooms any more than desegregation was about water foundations, lunch counters, or municipal buses. The point is to purge transpeople from public spaces. To make them disappear.”



even this page is white, by Vivek Shraya

The poem “eraser” takes the form of a school lesson, a punishment repeated across the space of a chalkboard, six phrases repeated in neat rows of five: “I will not make this about race.” “I will not bring my race to school.” “I will not make believe.” “I will not share my race online.” “I will not bring my race to work.” “Race is a choice not a construct.” The book is characterized by so much empty white space—the poems tend to be slim, justified away from the book’s spine, barely filling half the page. And yet, in the poem about erasure, there is so little room to breathe. And that’s the point—Shraya’s poems, in their direct, critical stare, turn back the telescope on the white gaze. But within the expansive whiteness of the pages, Shraya offers stunning images of ambivalence, aching, and pleasure.


RL Goldberg is a Ph.D. candidate in English and humanistic studies at Princeton.