Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: The Collection, ed. by Tom Léger and Riley MacLeod

Reviewed by Christina
I received a complimentary ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Published: due October 16, 2012

Full Title: The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard

It's about: The unifying element of The Collection is a focus (sometimes heavy, sometimes light) on trans identity and experience.  The stories themselves are varied enough to keep things interesting; many are realist slices of life, but a few draw in elements of genre fiction, non-linear plot, and/or absurdity.  Here are a few synopses, to give you an idea of the spectrum:
In "Saving" by Carter Sickels, Dean returns to his hometown in Kentucky to clean his grandmother's home after she has moved into an elder care facility.  He deals with self-imposed guilt about "dumping" his senile grandma, fields his redneck neighbor's gender-related issues, and learns about his girlfriend's infidelity.
In "Tammy Faye" by A. Raymond Johnson, CeCe credits Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner with instilling in CeCe the confidence to come out to her family as a woman and begin her transition.  She writes a heartfelt Thank You to Tammy Faye and receives a response.
In "Masks of a Superhero" by Mikki Whitworth, Annie struggles to balance her newly feminine identity with her former status as Captain Macho, the local superhero.
In "War With Waking Up" by Noel Arthur Heimpel, our protagonist tries to work out whether he is dating a hallucination or a ghost; they met in anatomy lab.  She was on the table, he was holding a scalpel.

BTW, if transgender topics are new for you, it might be helpful to peruse this list of vocab real quick.

I thought:  There are 28 stories here, and are all of them wonderful?  No.  Some are obvious and trite, some are boring, some just don't suit my personal tastes.  On the other hand, many are beautiful, original, funny.  I really enjoyed reading most of these pieces.  I've seen a few other reviews here and there that call The Collection uneven, but worthwhile overall.  I'll agree with that assessment.  There were only two or three that I thought could or should have been left out all together; for a fairly thick collection, that's not too shabby.

Several writers in this collection use gender-neutral pronouns!  I was delighted to see their appearance in English.  "Ze" is used in place of (s)he, "hir" in place of "him/her."  I had never seen this before, but it makes a lot of sense given the fact that some people prefer not to be labeled as either male or female.  However, one character (in Winning the Tiger, Katherine Scott Nelson) gets personally offended when a presumably uneducated carnival worker fails to recognize said neutral pronouns.  I found the scene pretty alienating as a reader; to belittle a character for failing to know something that the reader likely also doesn't know... it seems like an unwise, unsympathetic move for an author to take.  Innocent ignorance is not the same thing as hate.  The good news is that that was really the only story where I sensed an us-vs-them mentality.  Every other story in The Collection attempts to build bridges and understanding between cis and trans people.
EDIT:  Ok.  So, I've been thinking about this (and discussing it with a more enlightened friend) and have come to the conclusion that my own reaction to this exchange in "Winning the Tiger" might be indicative of some cis guilt and privilege.   I can see this passage as useful in expressing the frustration trans people feel at having to continually explain their point of view, and so yeah, I get why the author included it.

As I've mentioned before, I believe that one of the best and noblest goals of fiction is to elicit new empathy between the reader and some previously-unknown (or unconsidered) group of people.  The Collection succeeds.  Before picking it up I had only a surface-level awareness of what it might feel like to have a non-traditional relationship to gender.  But after reading this book, I have a new appreciation for the misunderstandings, heartaches, and misplaced judgements that many transgender people deal with on a near-daily basis.  I'm grateful for that, and I'm glad I read The Collection.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: If you're curious about The Collection, I have good news!  You can read one of the stories online here.  It's "A Roman Incident" by Red Durkin- one of my favorites.

Warnings: Lots of swears and some very explicit sex. 

Favorite excerpts:  From "Greenhorn" by K. Tait Jarboe: "I used to hate the futility of reducing life and the world into words and numbers, but now I feel like, I dunno, just because we use something to hurt doesn't mean it has to be a weapon."

From "Entries" by Riley Calais Harris: "Some are born gay, some achieve gayness, and some have gayness thrust upon them.  That's probably not true, but it would make a good bumper stickier."

What I'm reading nextThe Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (for A Year of Feminist Classics)