Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performance artist, social worker, and fierce trans femme. Bitch Media not only recognizes the great literary works of artists, but we want to celebrate the artist as person with their own creative practice and personal narrative separate from their celebrated work. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha reviewed Kai Cheng Thom’s latest work, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, and followed up with this gorgeous conversation.
LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA: The very first line in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars reads: “I don’t believe in safe spaces. They don’t exist. I do, however, believe in dangerous stories.” Later, after a time of great pain, struggle, and loss, the protagonist’s best friend, Kimaya, declares, “What we need is a storytelling night,” and the femmes come together and heal through performing just for each other. Tell me more about how dangerous stories have saved you and people you love and what kind of dangerous stories you most want to write.
KAI CHENG THOM: Dangerous stories are the only kind of stories I know how to tell because my life has never been a safe story. The supposedly ”safe” stories and ”safe” spaces have always been the ones that have shut me down, locked me out, erased or attacked my body and my voice—and this includes queer stories and spaces too. Storytelling has always been my savior by allowing me to tear open the truth of my own experience when no one else would do it for me. Telling the truth is always dangerous, however, because truth exposes you to repressive violence and also to the vulnerability that comes from acknowledging your own flaws.
These are the kind of stories I most want to write: The stories that demand courage, demand integrity, refuse to look away from pain and violence and ugliness, and in holding them up to the light, heals them and makes them beautiful. I want stories that sift the truth from lies and give lie to false truths. I want stories that make me a better person and make my communities better at loving—stories that are triggering, that break our badly healed bones in order to reset them and heal them better.
Talk to me about running away as a theme that occurs and reoccurs throughout the book.
Running away is the queer and trans version of the classic hero’s journey. It’s the queero’s journey! (Please forgive me for that. I just had to.) There is a long and powerful artistic/literary tradition of exploring queer coming of age and identity through themes of escape and running away, no doubt because so many of us grow up trapped in abusive and/or repressive environments.
I love the ”running away” queer story trope because it is also the inversion of the exile or familial rejection narrative that haunts queer youth, this terror of being thrown out like trash. For the protagoness of FFNL, running away is an act of reclaiming her own agency in the face of rejection, of fleeing to the margins in order to find something better, about discovering herself in the face of loss. She dreams about becoming ”the greatest escape artist in the world,” never again bound to anything or anyone she doesn’t choose. I can relate.
What did you most want to capture about trans women of color’s lives, coming of age stories, and communities in the book?
I was hoping to capture that wonderful, terrible, loving, violent, deeply upsetting, totally essential dynamic of sisterhood and shared destiny that binds trans women of color together. I wanted to show the vibrancy, jealousy, and collective care that TWOC sisters are so good at, how we can save each others’ lives only to tear each other apart and then sew each other back together again. I wanted to show our brilliant diversity and our power as well as our ugliness and our weakness. I wanted to make a map of trans sisterhood that held many possible paths. I dream about young trans girls reading it and glimpsing all of the possibilities that they can be.
I loved how you wrote trauma and dissociation in FFNL. In the opening section of the book, the protagonist is stung by a cloud of bees as a young person, which reads like a metaphorical way for writing about a sexually abusive encounter. Later, she talks about her “ghost friend,” the ghost who visits her when she’s cutting school in the graveyard and who is the only being that can make her orgasm—so much safer than human touch. Later still, when she meets a lover, ghost friend goes away. Can you tell us more about your choices in writing these trauma stories?
I love this question! Trauma and dissociation are, for many survivors, including myself, sites of mystery and painful, almost magical, experience. Trauma memories get twisted and blurred; they swim through the body like a poisonous drug. When I was writing the protagoness of FFNL, I knew that I had to show her carrying her trauma in a way that wasn’t a cut-and-dry, straightforward list of symptoms that psychiatry tries to reduce us to. The idea of ”notorious liars” was especially important to the story here: Readers may notice that the protagoness never actually tells her own trauma narrative in a straightforward way. Instead, she talks about killer bees invading her body and friendly ghosts giving her orgasms, which might be thought of as fantastical lies. Certainly, many victims of trauma are characterized as pathological liars when they try to express their truths in hospitals or police stations. I like to think that this shows readers that you don’t have to be ”perfect victims” or ”perfect survivors,” you don’t have to conform to someone else’s idea of what trauma is, and you don’t have to remember exactly what happened in order for your pain to be real. Your own story, your own body, is enough.
I also wanted to write about the incredible resilience and beauty that survivors of trauma can develop, the safety in dissociation and fantasy that we can create. There are phantom worlds inside of us that we can access when we need to, ghost friends that we can find when we are most in need.
How do you see your work fitting into a lineage or tradition? Who are the trans femme of color (and other) elder writers you respect?
My writing is absolutely descended from a lineage of queer and trans women writers and women of color writers. I find myself drawing a lot of inspiration from the examples of Asian and Black diasporic writers as well as queer women writers. FFNL in particular owes an enormous amount of inspiration to the novels Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai and Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn, both of which are books about queer girls who run away from home and find themselves in beautiful, terrifying new worlds. The protagoness of FFNL is also hugely influenced by the protagonist of queer writer Joey Comeau’s Lockpick Pornography, which is about an incredibly violent, deeply nihilistic genderqueer activist.
In general, I am inspired all the time by too many queer and trans femme of color writers, artists, and activists to name! Just off the top of my head are YOU, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, the aforementioned Amber Dawn and Larissa Lai, Audre Lorde, Trish Salah, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chrystos, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Gwen Benaway, jia qing wilson-yang, Janet Mock, and the list goes on and on.
You specifically mention trans femme elders, though, and I have to say that this is always hard for me. Certainly there are elder trans women and femme writers I respect (and part of my respect is hesitating to call them elders when they might identify otherwise, ha!), including Trish, whom I mentioned, Viviane Namaste, Mirha-Soleil Ross, and Julia Serano. My struggle, I suppose, is partially again that none of these women are explicitly self-identified as elders, and some are relatively young. This reminds me that trans women so often die young, and there are very few of us who attain both the longevity and the acclaim necessary to take on the role of elders in a trans writing community. The other part of the struggle is that due to systemic deprivation of resources all the way from basic needs to literary platforms, trans woman and femme literature is a hugely underdeveloped, undervalued genre in mainstream society—and part of being a racialized trans woman from a working-class family who didn’t formally study literature, I haven’t been exposed to very many trans women writers that I didn’t find and form community with on my own. So I don’t really know very many trans femme elder writers beyond a scant handful, I’m afraid. And this makes me sad.
You’re known as someone who organizes, teaches, and writes about transformative justice at Everyday Feminism, as a counselor, and in your work in Montreal with groups like Monster Academy, which you cofounded. One of FFNL’s main subjects is violence. The femmes of the book survive, and don’t survive, racist, transphobic, and anti–sex worker violence, band together in a girl gang to fight back, and are both saved and traumatized by the process. How does FFNL engage with violence and transformative justice as subjects?
The question of violence is absolutely at the core of FFNL, and all the major characters grapple with it in their own way. Some, like Valaria the Goddess of War, see violence as the only viable revolutionary tool in resisting oppression. Others, like Kimaya, abhor violence and reject it totally. The protagoness is locked in an addictive relationship with violence, which she employs frequently and indiscriminately as a way of expressing her fear and rage. She loves violence because it makes her feel powerful in the wake of trauma and abuse, but she is also terrified that she is doomed to always harm the people that she loves. This inner conflict takes place in the context of an external conflict between the vigilante trans girl gang, the Lipstick Lacerators, and the police of the Street of Miracles.
My explicit intention in writing these themes of violence was to explore questions that have been haunting me and my activist communities for as long as I can remember: How do we embrace violence as an effective and necessary revolutionary tool while also honoring and practicing other forms of making change? Are we capable of harnessing and controlling our so-called revolutionary violence, or will it consume us from within, manifesting itself as intimate partner violence and sexual assault? How can we heal as individuals and as communities from generation upon generation of violence that comes from external systems of oppression and from within our own communities? Why do we hurt the people we are supposed to care for most?
The book doesn’t yield and give easy answers because I personally don’t really have any answers. The only thing I know for certain is that we are all capable of violence, survival, redemption, and healing.
What scares and pisses you off the most about being a Visible Trans Writer? About being a trans femme of color writer in Canadian lit, or in lit period? What do you need to change?
You KNOW I am so all about this question right now! Being a Visible Trans Writer is a great gift in terms of validation, acclaim, and getting more resources thrown at you, but it also totally sucks in terms of mental health, self-care, and being seen as a human being. We live in this really weird, shitty political moment where trans women writers are seen as really valuable in certain leftist and liberal circles, which is way more about mining us for our identities and bodies than it is about actually elevating trans women communities as a whole. Liberals can make money out of publishing bestselling memoirs, and leftists can get social justice political capital by associating themselves with trans women (and especially trans women of color). None of this actually changes the frequency with which trans women are exposed to violence and economic discrimination in job and housing markets. And it turns trans women against each other because it creates this sense of scarcity, of desperation to ”make it” as one of the few token trans women who are allowed success. So this pisses me right the hell off.
What frightens me is how disposable Visible Trans Writers (and Visible Trans Anythings) seem to be. There’s this weird and scary activist culture that puts pressure on us to be politically perfect all the time and viciously punishes deviation from activist norms, like using the ”right” language all the time (even though the ”right” language can be elitist and inaccessible to many). So on the one hand, famous trans writers are elevated into this intensely fetishized status, and then on the other, they’re taken down and exiled for not being good enough. Where’s the room for our humanity in all of this? For our own journeys, relationships, dreams?
I need this to change. I need social justice culture to deprioritize the creation of celebrities, insider cliques, and this false notion of activist goodness or purity and to reprioritize equitable distribution of resources, indispensability culture, and collective care. I need the act of creating art or writing to be seen not as a capitalist endeavour whose primary end is to generate money and create individual fame, but as a practice of public sharing and offering individual truths for the community to reflect on as a whole. Just because a writer or a poet or an emcee says something doesn’t make it better or more true than anything else. It just means it sounds good. I think that we need to teach each other that the story-listeners are just as important as the storytellers, that listening or reading is not the same thing as consuming, and that art at its best is an act of shared humanity.
What are your trans woman of color literary dreams? What do you want the literary and poetic world to look like for trans women and femmes of color in the next five years?
Oh, gosh, this is an amazing question. I want so many things for trans women and trans femme writers! I dream of a world full of diverse, rad independent publishing initiatives backed by generous community funding and support that are dedicated to bringing trans femme voices into fruition. I want trans women who are racialized, disabled, working class, and sex workers to be given equal time, resources, and value to write and create and tell their own stories. I want a lush world of trans woman literature and poetry and art that help nurture and sustain trans women and femmes that is not constrained by capitalist concerns or tokenism or scarcity culture, by this idea that money is limited and there can only be one trans woman writer at a time and she should only write things that cis people are interested in hearing about trans people. Because I don’t think that this is true. I think there is enough room, enough resources, for all of us. I think each of us has unique and powerful stories to tell.
Where do you want your work to go in the next decade? What are your dangerous desires?
I want my work to go into the hands of trans girls of color who need it! I want to write things that are about joy and pleasure and spirit and gratitude because I have so often written about pain and trauma and rage. I want to write about desire, sexual desire, because my desire and pleasure have been attacked and demonized and I am often still afraid of them. I want to celebrate myself and my glorious body, and I want to celebrate and nurture other trans women of color. I want my words to shine a light, for me and for them.