A Safe Girl to Love Sent Me Searching for a Safe Place
Book: A Safe Girl to Love
Rating: 4/5 glasses of whisky while petting your judgmental cat
Recommended if you like: short story collections, lgbt stories with depth and complexity
First line: “My mom picked me up fresh off the red-eye and we went for donuts.”
Published: Topside Press, 2014
I want to preface this piece by saying that I am a white, cis-woman who identifies as bisexual. I am a trans ally and LGBT activist who believes that an intersectional feminist framework is the radical work we use to dismantle power and oppression. I do not presume to speak for trans folks. I am humbled and privileged to read, listen to, and share the lives and experiences of trans individuals in my life, in my community, and in literature.
This past fall I joined The Naughty Bits Book Club at my local sex shop and bookstore, Venus Envy in Ottawa. I was excited to find out that the book of the month was Casey Plett’s A Safe Girl to Love, a book of short fiction stories about young trans women as they navigate love, sex, harassment, and loss. Since much of my reading of trans authors and experiences has remained squarely in the realm of nonfiction, (as much of my reading does overall), I was ready to jump in feet first.
It seemed appropriate that we were discussing this book the evening I walked into the brightly lit shop decorated with dildos, strap-ons, floggers, and every flavour of lube you can imagine. That very afternoon the shop had actually been fined by the city for selling a chest binder to an underage trans person. Their mother had found the receipt and reported the shop. You see, apparently, individuals under 18 aren’t allowed to enter sex toy/education shops, let alone purchase something vital to their identity and comfort like a binder.
With the day’s news coverage and community coming together to purchase chest binders and get them in the hands of trans kids that need them hanging over the room, our small group dug into A Safe Girl to Love.
Short story collections can have a tendency to feel disconnected, but not so with Plett’s eleven stories that weave into one another without calling attention to this action. Even though each story is in a different town, province or state there are mentions of characters who are friends or relatives or old lovers of the current character. Folks will tell you that the queer community is small, even in large cities. A Safe Girl to Love moves around in this feeling without restricting space, characters, or experiences. Instead, Plett creates a community of characters that is familiar but not codependent. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I kinda know them – I met that person at a party six years ago.” Or, “we went to high school together but I didn’t really know her.” Or even, “we dated and it didn’t end well, let’s get out of here!”
The first story, “Other Women,” sets the tone as it follows Sophie, who comes home to her rural, Mennonite Canadian town for the first time since transitioning. Sophie navigates the relationships she left behind including her mother, who tries to remember the right pronouns to use. Her grandparents still refer to her as their grandson and prefer that Sophie sit in the back of church out of sight during the Christmas service. Sophie’s complicated relationship with her hard-drinking friend Megan comes to a head when they fall drunkenly into a sexual encounter that throws Sophie into feelings of maleness and violation. But Sophie eventually finds solace in the bed of Mark, Megan’s roommate.
“Other Women” powerfully carried me through experiences that I recognize, having grown up in a small town myself. Knowing that you are different from so many who stayed in that town makes going home a complex experience full of memories, trauma, longing, and (ab)normalcy. Sophie goes home to help define who she is and integrate her roots with her transition. Following her through sexual trauma as well as pleasure juxtaposes a constant sense of danger with her desire to be desired, consenting, and loved.
“Real Equality (A Manifesto)” shoves a tongue directly into the side of a cheek when it gives the speech of a cis-identified “ally” at a rally. This ally aims to dismantle labels, claiming that the only way to be equal is to no longer label ourselves, effectivly erasing the lived experience of queer folks. She uses her trans ex-girlfriend as a badge that proves her voice is worth something even though this ally ignores her own privilege, transphobia, and homophobia. For anyone who has been involved in queer activism, you’ve met this person before. It is cathartic to read a piece that throws all the unchecked privilege together to shine a spotlight on it’s ugliness. Just, evaluate your privilege, folks. It’s always better to learn to listen than keep talking, letting privilege carry you away into the land of being an asshole.
The story “Portland, Oregon” stands out as my favourite. It’s mostly told from the perspective of Adrienne’s cat, Glenn. Glenn holds seemingly one-sided conversations with Adrienne, growing frustrated with her lack of responsibility about his food and general care. Adrienne is a bit aimless, probably depressed, certainly overworked as an escort driver on call every hour of the day and night. Like Glenn, we are confined to the apartment, only catching glimpses of Adrienne as she struggles to find security in her life. At first, the story seems to be about a talking cat that Adrienne has conversations with, but there is something disjointed about these conversations. Read a bit closer to find Glenn has more of a Garfield and John quality – never quite connecting. Both individuals speak around one another but never with one another. This breakdown of communication adds to an overall feeling of isolation and loneliness that is palpable.
Our book club talked for over two hours about A Safe Girl to Love because it is a mesmerizing set of stories that can be unpacked in a multitude of ways. Plett’s characters are individual and nuanced. The collection as a whole has a sense of unease, creating a need to be on alert while trying to claim safe space, experiences, and relationships. All I can end by saying is definitely make A Safe Girl to Love your next read. Consider ordering through your local, independent bookstore, request it for your public library (as one of our book club members does for all LGBT books), or purchase from Amazon.
What was your last book club read? Anything as engrossing and discussion inducing as this? I want to know!