Monday, 30 November 2015

Telling our lives in their words: Casey Plett, Imogen Binnie and the Never Mind the Hormones Tour

A bit of disclosure: this post is going to be partly about the night the awesome Never Mind the Hormones tour came to Newcastle, and partly about the Supreme Awesomeness of the books by that tour's featured authors, Casey Plett and Imogen Binnie. However, due to my scheduling commitments over the summer, I have not yet finished reading Binnie's Nevada, so I am almost certainly going to spend more of this review gushing in an embarrassing, fangirlish manner about Plett's A Safe Girl to Love. This is in no way a reflection on the quality of both because what I have read of Nevada so far is Supremely Awesome too. Both are great books, in fact in my opinion they are in fact Great Books, and you should go to the Topside Press site and buy both books right now. In fact, as they make ideal Christmas presents for anyone in your life, either trans or cis, I suggest you buy multiple copies. Your mum can thank me later (it won't be the first time).

July. I'm sat on a rooftop in Hammersmith telling a fellow poet about one of the most painful experiences of my life, not so much as therapy, but because a book I've been reading has finally given me a framework in which to think about that experience, and a lot of others too. That book is Casey Plett's A Safe Girl to Love, and what I am trying to impress on my fellow poet is that reading this book is a revelatory experience because it keeps punching me in some deeply personal places with how real it is, how much it chimes with my experiences as a trans woman in ways that nothing else I've read ever has. From the horrible thing that happens to Sophie in 'Other Women', through the much nicer thing that happens to Lisa in 'How Old Are You Anyway?' to the painfulness of getting make-up tips from your ex in 'How To Stay Friends', this is a book that feels like it was written for me. And for so many other trans women I know too: whenever I hear a friend's father talk to her on the phone in his Missouri drawl, I can't help but be reminded of the way Lizzy's dad speaks to her in 'Lizzy and Annie' - the accent may not be the same, the phrasing may be less crude, but the sense of a father accepting his daughter, at once one of the smallest and the biggest things there are, is there. And so many other things as well: the fact that women can be chasers too, the fear of going to parties, the poetry of drifting in a swimsuit and it not being a big deal...I can remember exactly where I was when I read each of these moments, because they took my breath away so much that I had to close the book (metaphorically speaking: I read this on a Kindle) and take a moment to compose myself.

I think the reason this book moved me so much was the fact that I am so used to seeing the trans experience presented through the lens of polemic, through journalism and blogging and activism, Hell, through my own writing - and that polemic is usually aimed at cis people. One way or another we always seem to be justifying ourselves to them: our right to use the right bathroom, our right to use words like cis, our right to simply fucking exist - and what is so goddam exhilarating about reading this book is it does none of that. This is not a book which aims to justify the ways of the trans to the cis. This is a book which says, quietly but firmly, fuck cis people: these are our stories. And it tells us those stories, it shares them with us, and we realise we're not alone.

I was alone pretty much everywhere I read these stories: because I spent a lot of time over the summer and autumn criss-crossing the country on various forms of public transport, I was usually surrounded by cis people in small metal boxes while reading them. But I didn't feel like the only one in the room when I read them, and that's what makes them so powerful.

So it was a huge honour to host both Plett and Imogen Binnie, author of the game-changing novel of trans experience Nevada, for the Newcastle leg of Topside's Never Mind the Hormones tour, and a pleasure to get together a group of local trans (and trans-allied) artists to read at said event. The rest of this post will, I'm going to be honest, just be unapologetic gushing about how fucking great that night was, interspersed with photos of people performing (all of these photos were taken by me, so apologies for the poor quality in advance).

After a brief intro from myself and Cat Fitzpatrick, Topside's Poetry Editor, the first to read was Mica Hind, one third of Newcastle's excellent storytelling oufit The Moss Troopers but also an excellent writer herself. Having Mica read at this event was really important to me because seeing her read at a local poetry event made me literally feel as if I wasn't the only one in that room:

Mica Hind
Next up we had Juli Watson, host of the AMOK radio show on Pride Radio North East and half of Newcastle Literary Salon, who read a new poem as well as two other poems of hers I totally love, 'Queen of Cups' and 'Filling the Void':

Juli Watson
It was great to host two local trans writers who hadn't performed before too, in the shapes of Ellen Mellor and Natalie V Sharp. Both more than gave a good account of themselves, Ellen reading a space travel story which I really hope she'll submit to Topside's forthcoming speculative fiction anthology, and Natalie doing a set of sharp, punchy poems which managed to cover chasers, sex and dysphoria in five minutes and fit in a Love and Rockets reference, which is the kind of thing which is always going to go over well with me:

Ellen Mellor
Natalie V Sharp
And then I read something. Given that I spent most of the night in a state of low-grade panic (this is the first time I've ever organised a gig), I didn't have the presence of mind to give someone my phone to take a photo of me reading. So, here's a video of me doing the poem I read. Because it was filmed over a year ago and before I went on blockers I look an absolute shambles, obviously:

After that, Cat got up again to introduce the Topside talent. I can't remember if Cat did her poem 'FUCKING AMY' at the start of the night or during this segment, but either way it was a brilliant exploration of the tensions of being a trans woman in a relationship with another trans woman. And so I am going to include a video of Cat reading said poem...

and I am also going to post a photo of Cat wearing the crown she wore for the Newcastle gig, because it is a most excellent crown:

Cat Fitzpatrick (with crown)
After that Beth Flanagan read two fantastic pieces, one about breast cancer and supernumary nipples, and the other an indictment of transphobia in Portland's queer scene which had me wanting to punch the air:

Beth Flanagan
And then the Main Event, as it were. Plett read excerpts from 'How to Stay Friends' and 'Other Women' and both were brilliant. I think I speak for everyone in the room in saying we'd all have been happy for Casey to read loads more (I personally would have liked her to read the entire book, though this would have both taken us past the event's advertised finishing time and been a gross abuse of her human rights):

Casey Plett
That's equally true of Imogen Binnie's reading too. Binnie opted to read a new story, rather than an excerpt from Nevada. Said story, which blended supernatural elements with a disquisition on nineties video game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, had a final sentence which was so perfect, and packed so much complex emotion into a few words, that I urge you to read it as soon as it comes out. This was definitely another air-punch moment.

Imogen Binnie
I've rambled a lot in this piece; hopefully somewhere among all this you can see how important this event was to me. On a selfish level, 2015 has been an absolutely pivotal year for me and my writing, and I think this event, and discovering Topside more generally, is going to have a huge influence on where I go from here. And more generally, I am so made-up about the fact that Topside EXISTS, that a corner has been turned in trans literature and it is now no longer about them, the cis people we need to justify ourselves too: it's about us. These are our stories. Fuck cis people.

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