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Photo by Jackson Ezra.

Writer Kai Cheng Thom on learning to love monsters

By Lee Pepper on January 4, 2017

Prolific writer, performer, social worker, and spoken word artist Kai Cheng Thom is coming to Ottawa in support of her latest book and first novel.  What does that make her, a quadruple threat? Quintuple? I lost count somewhere in there.

I first encountered Thom’s work at the workshop “Monstrous Love: Mental Health and Intimate Partner Abuse,” which she and co-facilitator Kota Harbron led at Venus Envy in 2015.  With empathy, humour, and passion, she spoke about how, in maginalized communities where many of us struggle with mental health and trauma, we can have compassion for ourselves and support one another.

The workshop drew on her work with Monster Academy Montreal, a radical mental health initiative for youth, of which Thom was a co-founder. Asking participants to rethink their ideas of what a monster is, Monster Academy encouraged people to find the strength and beauty in difference, and to draw on it in our relationships with one another.

I love monsters because they represent the hungriest, most hidden parts of ourselves that we most often confine to exile. If I can love a monster, if someone can love the monster in me, then anyone is capable of loving and being loved.

That same fierce empathy carries through to her novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, which will have its Ottawa launch at 7:30 pm on Thursday, January 12th at Venus Envy.

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Photo courtesy of Kai Cheng Thom.

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is the story of a young Asian trans woman who runs away from her home and her parents’ expectations to start a new life in the city. She finds a community of tough, loving, complex trans women, who work and fight and love together: sometimes having each other’s backs, sometimes at each other’s throats, in a way that will be very familiar to anyone who’s spent time in queer and trans communities.

Thom populates the world of her novel with both all-too-real characters as well as with magical elements like a ghost friend, ailing mermaids, and a drug that causes people who use it to shapeshift uncontrollably. The sum of these parts is an evocative, poignant, and tender coming-of-age story about how our chosen families can be as complex and fraught as the ones we are born into.

Apt613 interviewed Kai Cheng Thom by email.

Apt613: I read that you recently moved to Toronto to work as a counselor for queer and trans youth. What has that been like?

KCT: It’s been amazing and terrifying and wonderful and horrible and deepening and soul-crushing and magical and everything that a good adventure should be. The funny thing about Toronto is that so many people move there from Montreal (where I lived before) at some point or other that at times it seems like I haven’t really moved at all! But then, of course, I think about my closest Montreal friends, including my wife, and my heart aches for home. And yet then again, in some ways I already feel more at home in Toronto than I ever did in Montreal, because of the massive population of Chinese and East Asian and otherwise racialized folks who live in this city. So it’s a strange, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous thing to live here now. One thing I’m grateful for is the chance to grow and change and get to know new communities.

Being a counselor to youth – my caseload has been totally trans so far – is awe-inspiring and humbling. The youth I see are really smart and know what’s up! It’s pretty eye-opening to see how different their lives are from mine just a few years ago – and even more eye-opening to see what seems to have stayed the same. It’s a great gift and also a heavy responsibility working with young trans folks, especially because so far, I’ve consistently been the first openly trans woman of colour therapist that any of my clients have met (and I don’t know any others, either). I am constantly longing to be more – a more skilled therapist, a stronger person, a better activist and advocate – so that I can live up to this role. It’s exhausting and inspiring all at once! It also makes me really eager to see more trans women entering the fields of health care and social services.

Photo courtesy of Kai Cheng Thom.

Photo courtesy of Kai Cheng Thom.

Could you talk about the role of magic realism, and of creating or reworking myths for ourselves, in your writing? I’m especially interested in this in the context of your work with Monster Academy, because the loving way you spoke about monsters and monstrosity really spoke to me. 

We are all monsters in our darkest hearts – and the monsters within us are powerful beings, protectors, harbingers, bringers of horror and strength and change. They are also harm-bringers, hurtful beings, creatures that lash out and destroy that which we love most. In other words, monsters are pretty queer! (haha…ha…) I love monsters because they represent the hungriest, most hidden parts of ourselves that we most often confine to exile. If I can love a monster, if someone can love the monster in me, then anyone is capable of loving and being loved. This knowledge only grows deeper within me over time, often in both beautiful and painful ways.

As for myth-making and writing, well, most myths harbor a monster at their core: a hungry wolf, a wicked witch, a minotaur trapped in a maze. One of the most interesting things to do as a writer (for me, anyway) is to play with and challenge the idea of who the monster is: Is it really the wolf, or is it the mysterious girl in her red, red cloak? Is it the witch in her hut, or is it the villagers with their torches? Is it the “crazy” trans women in my book, who hunt and beat up cis dudes for fun, or is it those men who abuse and exploit them?

Magical realism and fantasy have always been my favorite genres, because there is so much that is possible in those storytelling modes – dream logic, multiple versions of reality, the miraculous – they defy the colonial, Eurocentric literary canon’s fetishization of non-fiction and “realist” fiction. To be quite frank, I have always believed that queer people live literally magical lives. I just try to write that down.

I loved the review that Gwen Benaway wrote of your book, where she writes that “It is rare to find a moment of affection in literature between trans women without anyone watching but us.” To me, this speaks to what Casey Plett wrote about how often books about trans people that are written for cis, rather than trans, readers, present trans people as being fundamentally alone, when actually most of us exist in complex, loving, contentious community with other trans folks.

I loved that review too! Gwen is such a careful and loving reader and writer – I strongly urge folks to check out her stuff! She has new book of poetry that just came out (Dec 2016) titled Passage, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. And I think that Casey was right on the mark when she wrote about that in her pieces for the Walrus. When we as writers think of trans readers as our central audience, then the whole process of writing changes.

The only thing I might add to that is that I’ve noticed a fairly significant push from a specific scene of trans writers, based mostly in the States, to push a particular kind of story as the “real” trans narrative – usually a kind of story that centres on white trans/queer urban culture and groups of white trans/queer urban communities. This runs the risk of devaluing trans stories by and about isolated trans people – and the truth is that many of us do experience isolation, and even alienation from the so-called trans community. All this to say, I want to be cautious that as we continue to challenge and defy storytelling tropes created by cis people about trans folks, we also resist the urge to develop our own set of tropes that try to police what kinds of trans stories are “true,” “important,” or “acceptable.”

You have also mentioned how the book grew from your desire to write “a love letter and an apology” for other trans women in your life. I was wondering if you could speak more to the idea and the process of writing for other trans women, and how this grew out of your experiences and relationships?

Oof, tough question! In my experience, trans women have very, very complicated relationships with one another – we are each others’ only true siblings in many ways, the only ones who can understand what it means to live in this transmisogynist society. And, like siblings, we are usually thrown into fierce competition with one another, for resources and for space. Like siblings, because we know each others’ heart so well, we also know each others’ weaknesses. We can hurt each other very, very deeply. I have both hurt and been hurt by other trans women. Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars was born out of my struggle to understand and make peace with this reality.

Thom and her wife, artist Kama La Mackeral.

Thom and her wife, artist Kama La Mackeral.

Given the relative scarcity of stories about and for trans women, and trans women of colour in particular, did you feel pressure to create a certain kind of representation, to have the story go in a certain direction, or for it to be hopeful/uplifting/etc?

Actually, no, thank goodness! I wrote what was in my soul – a cast of characters of whom the vast majority were trans women of colour. Those characters come from the examples and possibility models that real trans women of colour have been for me, from my own relationships and complicated sisterhoods, and from my own longing for everlasting trans family. It was a joy to write. Pressure be damned. The best I can do is tell a story that rings true (which is pretty funny, given the book’s title).

I read in your interview with the McGill Daily that you’re working on a children’s book as well, would you be able to talk about that?

A bit, yes! I am super excited about this project, which is a collaboration with the incredible illustrators and my dear, dear friends Emily Yee Clare and Wai-Yant Li. The book, titled From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea follows a classic prose-verse children’s book format, and it tells the tale of a young child born when both the sun and moon are in the sky – and because of this, cannot decide what to become.

Are there any great books/writers you’ve read lately that you want people to know about?

Passage by Gwen Benaway I have already mentioned. Small Beauty by Jia Qing Wilson-Yang is a classic in the making. He Mele A Hilo by Ryka Aoki is one of the best novels out there. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson and Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai are also up there on my list of books to make other people read these days!

Is there anything else you’d want people to know about you or your writing?

I’m so grateful to you for doing this interview, to the folks who inspired and encouraged me to write Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, and to people who are reading/intend to read the book! “Being a writer” is a phenomenon that can only occur when there are readers to support the work. And no book is born in a vaccuum! It take a whole bunch of people to bring one into the world, such as my incredible publishers, Metonymy Press, who are doing some great work. Basically I love everyone so much that it hurts sometimes and books are great. Hooray!

The Ottawa launch of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir takes place at 7:30 pm on January 12th at Venus Envy, which is a wheelchair-accessible venue with an accessible washroom. 

For more on Kai Cheng Thom, visit her website