Riley MacLeod on the Writing Trans Genres Conference
Author: Riley MacLeod
June 25, 2014
The Writing Trans Genres Conference was a four-day conference (May 22-24, 2014) held at the University of Winnipeg, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and co-hosted by the University’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department and the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies. The conference brought together scholars, performers, writers and activists to explore, discuss and create new directions in transgender, transexual, two-spirit and genderqueer poetry, literature and performance.
In the following post, writer and Topside Press editor Riley MacLeod provides a detailed snapshot of his time at the conference.
Writing Trans Genres, or Drinking with Trans Ladies
(“Drinking with trans ladies” is a phrase Topside Press Publisher Tom Leger and I have coined for when you stay up all night drinking and talking trans literature with other trans folks and then, the next day, simultaneously love your life and regret everything.)
The night we left for Winnipeg, author and comedian Red Durkin came over to my house and played Day of Defeat while I frantically packed and argued with my boss over email. The staccato of the video game made a comforting soundtrack to my preparations for the Writing Trans Genres conference, a four day conference at the University of Winnipeg for trans writers, poets, scholars and artists to come together to figure out just what it is we’re doing with this thing we’re calling trans literature. Organized by some amazing people, including the incredible Trish Salah and a phalanx of dedicated volunteers, it’s as far as I know one of the first conferences in the world dedicated solely to trans writing. Red’s gaming reflected how I felt: excited, nervous and more than a little besieged by the groundbreaking weekend before us.
Red, Tom Leger and I met up at an ungodly hour to head to the conference, me still worrying about work and Red still buzzing from her video game victories. Despite being a coterie of transsexuals traveling on a plane, the flight was fairly uneventful. Waiting for our connection to Winnipeg at O’Hare, several other people going to the conference appeared at our gate, and we began to gather a critical mass of trans folks that would grow to two hundred strong as the weekend progressed. (If you’re trans and have never flown on a plane full of other trans people, let me tell you: it rules.)
Oddly, Winnipeg looked like I thought it would: grey and brown, like all the Weakerthans songs I knew about the place. We were met at the airport by several conference volunteers, including the fantastic Owen Campbell, who provided us with enough Canadian money to take the bus to the Holiday Inn. We checked into our hotel, and Tom and I rushed out to find Casey Plett, whose book A Safe Girl to Love had just been released by our press, Topside. We found her in the Women and Gender Studies department of the University, putting the finishing touches on conference packets. We screamed about her book loudly enough to upset students in the cafeteria and settled in to help her stick things in folders. It was a good chance to see who else was attending the conference, and overall Casey would have saved a lot of time by just making one big folder that said “EVERYONE.” But for every outcry of “I’m so glad so-and-so is coming,” there was a similar sigh of “Oh no, but what about so-and-so?” Already, the conference seemed like some special other world, a place where we could come together to share the work we’re doing and try to make a movement out of so many diverse threads, genres and goals.
The night ended as most of my nights with trans writers do: drinking copious amounts of beer and talking over each other in our eagerness to catch up and crack jokes. Crowded around a table at the oddly-named Garbanzo’s Pizza Pub, we discussed how such a conference could never happen in America; as someone at the table sage-drunkenly said, a US university would have blown the whole conference budget on Chaz Bono rather than providing the much-needed support for travel, food and lodging that made so many of us able to attend.
I forgot to change the clock on my computer and spent Thursday morning panickedly emailing the co-presenters of my panel, thinking they were late and needlessly rousing them all from sleep. The conference began with a keynote by Aiyyana Maracle, a Haudenosaunee trans writer, activist and artist. She cited feeling that people who identify as “transsexual” are being crowded out of the trans umbrella in favor of a wider range of gender identities, a somewhat startling statement that became immensely productive when I was turning it over with my friends later. Red pointed out the need to foster unity for political reasons without flattening differences within communities, an idea that felt vital in a conference in which identities and genres butted against each other, broadly defined. Can we come to some kind of consensus on “trans,” “literature” or “trans literature” without losing ourselves or excluding each other? Such questions again reminded me of the incredible value of bringing all of us together to have these conversations in person, as I munched on conference-provided snacks and tossed ideas back and forth with every old and new friend who came my way.
I should note that I hang out with Red a lot, so I probably quote her a lot, and to continue quoting her, we headed to her workshop on trans people and humor after the keynote. If you don’t know Red, she’s a trans stand-up comedian, and she explored the history of humor and what goes into the structures of jokes, focusing on why trans people, so often the butt of comedians’ jokes, actually can’t find these jokes funny because they are not included among the audience in a real way. She highlighted that jokes are moral statements requiring joke-tellers to be accountable for the stances they take, and we explored the particular nature and potential of trans humor. An under-explored genre at the conference, the workshop fostered a lively and interesting discussion. (Plus, I got to share a chemistry class-style lab table with Imogen Binnie, thus living out a high school dream I never even knew I had.)
The first plenary featured Amir Rabiyah, Gein Wong, Joy Ladin, Tom Leger and Trish Salah, my experience of which was slightly marred by my job insistently emailing me. Their talks looked for frames and contexts for trans literature, which was fitting for the first day of the conference. Joy talked about the failures of language and identity and where the “I” is situated in trans art, saying, “Language always fails us,” a provocative statement to a
room full of writers. Gein discussed the history of trans and genderqueer cultures and art and the challenges of curating such a history in light of the power structures that make them invisible. Tom discussed the usual things Tom and I discuss only on a panel and not in his living room, namely the limits of cis narratives about trans people and what we can do to overcome them, which is mostly by asking every trans person we know, “Is your book done?” Trish threw down the gauntlet regarding conferences like this, asking what emerges from this new trans literature, whose voices we listen to and whose voices we dismiss, even those that may seem outdated or harmful. Her provocative questions cast an interesting light on the day, both undoing the work being done and ramping up the challenges facing us. I left the plenary, as I left every panel, in a haze of excitement and overwhelming exhaustion, chattering through a dazed need for sleep.
The day ended with a keynote by the prolific sci-fi and tarot writer Rachel Pollack, during which my job emailed me endlessly and exhaustion rang in my ears. Rachel likened the honesty and hard work it takes to be trans to the work it takes to be a writer. To judge by the indefatigable joy of poet Cat Fitzpatrick at the end of her talk, I’m certain she said way more awesome things than I’m recounting here, but unfortunately what I mostly remember is repeatedly emailing my job, “WE ARE MAKING HISTORY PLEASE GO AWAY.” (If you’re reading this, job: we totally were. Please don’t fire me.)
One of the best and worst things about this conference was that it was probably the only time that so many amazing trans folks would be in the same place, and it was impossible to resist the lure of spending time together no matter how many emails I got from work or how tired I was. A huge group of us ended up at Garbanzo’s yet again–again crammed into a too-small table, again talking eagerly and laughing and ranting and ordering one more pitcher just to keep the conversation going. As Tom and I often discuss, many trans narratives feature trans people alone in a world of cis people, and moments like this never fail to remind me that we aren’t doomed to live in isolation.
Last night’s eagerness came back to haunt me when my alarm went off bright and early for Tom’s and my writing workshop. We lay in our respective beds discussing holding the workshop in our hotel room before dragging ourselves over to the University to pound several cups of graciously provided conference coffee. A number of intrepid writers showed up, and Tom and I attempted to cram semesters’ worth of workshops into roughly ninety minutes. We used several writing prompts, each of them requiring that writers feature two trans characters talking to each other. While we have some solid political reasoning for this, primarily we love it because it turns out such awesome work. Stories in the workshop included a trans woman hunting down her trans male partner with a potato gun and two trans women at the mall throwing an apple at J. Michael Bailey.
There was barely time for a cup of coffee before it was on to the next plenary, titled “Stories, Histories, Politics,” featuring writers Casey Plett, Imogen Binnie, Rupert Raj and Ryka Aoki. The common theme was how much trans literature is changing and, as Trish pointed out, challenging the stories we accept and reject and exploring what they mean for our lives. As a long time trans activist, Rupert’s perspective stood out to me as an important connection to our past and how differently trans people spoke of themselves not so long ago. The plenary, and the conference in general, made me realize that I may be part of one of the earliest generations to have both elders and youth, all of whom seem situated in such powerfully different contexts than my own. I wondered how to hold these voices without compromising mine, how to maintain a sense of what I think is important to say while speaking to my diverse peers. Imogen highlighted this in her talk, discussing the phases trans literature has moved through and the uncharted territory ahead of us as our literature continues to evolve. Similarly, Casey discussed whether or not trans writing should “help people” and the challenges of creating fully-realized trans characters given the pressures to present model or normative trans characters in service of trans politics. Ryka basically stole the show with her impassioned speech, demanding of audiences not to “confuse what you want to hear with what I want to say” and claiming, “We don’t need a Columbus to discover us,” all of which was met with thunderous applause.
The fire of their talk stayed with me through my own panel with writer Cooper Lee Bombardier and Cat Fitzpatrick discussing how to teach trans writers. Cat runs a trans poetry workshop in NYC and laid out the particular challenges inherent to teaching poetry, while Cooper seamlessly weaved his personal narrative with the things he’s learned teaching writing both to trans people and college students. I discussed why it’s important for trans writers to write trans characters, which requires beginning with the idea that trans characters are people and thus are allowed to want more than just The Surgery. The discussion after our presentations was enlivening and interesting, covering a gamut of topics that flowed from the conversations in the plenary, and I felt a deep sense of gratitude for being able to have these conversations in person (as well as a deep appreciation for nametags, as I met more and more awesome people and surreptitiously followed them on Twitter while chatting away).
A day of listening to writers talk about writing fueled our journey over to Winnipeg’s Millennium Library, where a reading featured a huge range of incredibly talented fiction writers and poets. I was glad that the reading was held in a public location, thus opening it up to people outside the conference, and it was amazing to hear so many of the writers who had spoken so intelligently and eloquently during the conference share their work. After the reading we herded ourselves back to our hotel, where my efforts to take a nap were interrupted by watching bad reality television that did little to help me rest up for “An Unbecoming Cabaret,” a night of performance at The Pyramid. Performers, poets and writers presented genre-crossing work in a variety of formats, including Cat Fitzpatrick’s moving group reading of her poem “All the Trans Girls Say,” which reduced more than one of us to tears. The cabaret was also a great chance to do more sitting around tables and drinking with people I never see, which I could tell was becoming a theme, but which was also where so many of my most interesting and productive conversations happened.
Saturday morning began with me running into a curious amount of people walking away from the University, which I eventually learned was due to a lack of coffee. I ran into poet Samuel Ace (whose birthday it was) and Trish, who were going to rectify the coffee situation, so Samuel and I followed her to Tim Horton’s in the interest of helping our fellow attendees and (at least for me) getting first dibs on coffee. Said coffee fueled me through the panel “Kids These Days: Trans Representation in Young Adult Literature” with Annie Mok, Everett Maroon, Jack Radish and Kyle Lukoff. I’m not a huge YA fan, but I learned a lot from their thoughts, knowledge and struggles as YA writers and readers, and I was only a little bit of a jerk about my dislike for YA, which the presenters took with unnecessarily forgiving style and grace.
I will admit, tragically, to missing the next two keynotes to attempt to type up these notes before my exhausted brain erased them all, helped along by the dedicated and admirable tweeting by conference attendees, especially Everett. I worked on it until the “Writing Trans Feminisms” panel, which featured Cat Fitzpatrick, K. Bradford, merritt kopas and T.L. Cowan. Cat explored literary themes in artist Sybil Lamb’s experimental I’ve Got a Time Bomb and Casey Plett’s A Safe Girl to Love. K. discussed the genderqueer experience and confronting violence. Merritt (incidentally one of the coolest people around) covered basically the entirety of video games by trans women and why they’re important to trans writers, emphasizing how “hypertext and digital games are trans genres.” T.L. discussed the idea of “trans feminist killjoys” and brought into the conversation the conflicts between cis and trans feminists, citing important artists like Mirha Soleil-Ross. Most of their talks centered trans women in a way that felt incredibly important for the movements going on today, and it made an excellent last panel of the conference.
Then we came together for another reading, in which Cooper read from his memoir about being a punk in Boston, a subject close to my heart, and I got to hear Ryka read from He Mele A Hilo, her new book, for the first time. It was an incredible experience to hear her voice give life to the original tone and narrative of the book, and several of us said afterward that we could have listened to her read forever. However, again, my exhaustion caught up with me, and an addled group of us ended up missing the final dinner and plenary to stagger to a nearby food court, where Topside had sold enough books to buy me dinner in the form of a fast food chicken sandwich, because the life of a trans publisher, if you couldn’t tell, is incredibly glamorous.
We returned to the conference in time for the closing remarks, where Trish spoke searingly about the conference’s failures, including the absence of black writers and intersex writers, and the conference’s focus on North America. I was surprised that Trish’s closing remarks focused so strongly on where she felt the organizers could have done better, but it also represented Trish’s commitment to fostering this movement in a way that feels vital for the diverse range of people who make up what we’re attempting to call trans literature. There’s no one definition of who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going, and Trish’s recognition of that made me both intimidated and hopeful for the road ahead…
…which was several of us closing out Garbanzo’s, ending up a pool hall once it closed, and someone arriving–once the pool hall closed–with a wet cardboard box of Molson king cans, which led several of us to the Assiniboine River, which ended up with someone ending up in the river, which ended with Red and I cramming in an hour of oversleeping before racing to the airport. We shared a great moment at security, where several of us got to go through a TSA checkpoint with other trans people for the first time. Our small, rickety plane was basically full of trans folks, all of us running up and down the aisles and perhaps spooking the cis people, much to my delight. Red and I managed to get through the Toronto airport without having to declare the contents of our stomachs to customs, and we returned to New York covered in mud, regret and the eagerness to continue building trans literary movements, mostly at crowded tables much too loudly and much too late at night.