7 Novels from Transgender Authors to Add to Your TBR List

published Nov 16, 2021
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Transgender Awareness Week (Nov. 13-19) is an awkward phenomenon: a week-long “celebration” leading up to Trans Day of Remembrance’s grim commemoration of lives lost to transphobic violence. Yet this juxtaposition of life and death all too often shapes the reality of trans life.

Complicating the matter is that “awareness” is never exactly as liberating an experience as we want it to be; for many trans people, after all, to be made visible is to be made vulnerable. If “awareness” is to offer any balm at all, it has to shun the impulse to reduce us to flat symbols ready for mainstream assimilation. While such symbols might be easy to celebrate, they make us an easy target for exploitation and violence. Meaningful awareness of trans people foregrounds our multiplicity: It understands that we are everywhere, living radically distinct lives, and the loss of any of us is the loss of a whole world. 

With that in mind, I’ve put together a reading list of contemporary and upcoming fiction from transgender authors that I hope emphasizes the vastly different voices with which we speak: 

“Light from Uncommon Stars” by Ryka Aoki

This novel from Ryka Aoki is a vibrant sci-fi adventure, an ode to violins and donuts, and a compelling love story all in one. Set during the heady first years of young violinist Katherine Nguyen’s transition, “Light from Uncommon Stars” chronicles Nguyen’s unlikely relationship with Shizuma Satomi, a woman contractually obligated to deliver her soul to the devil, and Lan Tran, a retired starship captain. The story is sweet and engrossing, told with a joy for sensuous detail that borders on the maniacal and is rendered all the sweeter by the ever-present specter of tragedy just off the edge of the page.

“Darryl” by Jackie Ess

Jackie Ess’s diaristic account of a cuckold fetishist, “Darryl” is one of the smartest and funniest debut novels I’ve read. Its enormous cast of secondary characters are truly multi-dimensional people; they’re all hilarious dinguses, but Ess recognizes the thin veil between the ironic and the sincere, reveling in the legitimate passion with which people pursue the ridiculous. It’s also one of the only novels I know to take as its subject the fluid categorical boundaries between so-called fetishistic categories of desire, sexual orientations, and gender identities, exploring the problem of how these distinct yet overlapping spheres of experience come to constitute the constellation of meaning we call the queer. 

“Manhunt” by Gretchen Felker-Martin

A violent, blood-drenched corrective to a rash of ill-considered gender plague novels by cis authors (such as Stephen King’s “Sleeping Beauties” or Lauren Beukes’ “Afterland”), Felker-Martin’s “Manhunt” follows a cast of trans characters fighting off TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) fascists and zombies alike in the aftermath of a pandemic which turns any individual whose body produces a certain threshold of testosterone into a feral beast. The trans perspective allows this familiar horror setup to occupy new registers of meaning and tears apart any sense of stability with which we think we can approach the question of sex, gender, and the relationship between the biological and the cultural.

“A Dream of a Woman” by Casey Plett

A new short story collection from the co-founder of nascent Little Puss Press and author of classics “A Safe Girl to Love” and “Little Fish,” Casey Plett’s “A Dream of a Woman” has been longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and marks serious steps forward for realistic fiction about trans people. Filled with flawed but lovable characters animated by real desires, the stories offer unexpected ruptures from conventional and over-romanticized trans narratives. They focus instead on small moments of emotional intensity, such as a trans woman’s negotiation of the complicated politics of care and desire with her transitioning lover. The collection is formally impressive as well, interweaving a long novella, “Obsolution,” between the other stories in a way that beautifully evokes the often-fragmented chronologies of trans lives.

“Lote” by Shola von Reinhold

A ferociously queer and anti-capitalist work from Shola von Reinhold, “Lote” is a book about the paracanonical, the figures who live outside the edges of our accepted boundaries of history and knowledge. Young artist Mathilda’s obsession with the Bright Young Things, the literary modernists of 1920s London, brings her into contact with the forgotten oeuvre of Black modernist writer Hermia Druitt. From there, a strange and mystical narrative unfolds, told at turns through conventional prose, a pastiche of the historical novel, dream diaries, an academic treatise, and sensualist and decadent passages that rival Huysmans.

“Summer Fun” by Jeanne Thornton

The second novel from Lambda Award finalist and Instar Books co-founder Jeanne Thornton, “Summer Fun” traces the life of Gala, a trans woman living in a remote New Mexico town who conducts an elaborate magical ritual by writing letters to B—-, the famous lead singer of 1950s surf-rock band, the Get Happies. Told in the epistolary mode, Thornton’s novel is instantly enthralling, and stands out in trans fiction for taking seriously the role of imagination, projection, and magic in shaping the horizons of politics, history, culture, the body, and more. Her vision of trans life is lush and complex, seeing us at once as artists and magicians, as well as flawed, vulnerable, and deeply human.

“Bad Girls” (“Las Malas”) by Camila Sosa Villada

An incredible debut novel from Argentinian theater and film star Camila Sosa Villada, “Bad Girls” is the story of a young trans girl, Camila, who joins up with a band of sex workers living in Córdoba’s Sarmiento Park. Taking a page from writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Roberto Bolaño, Villada’s work blends a stark depiction of violence and trauma with a distinctly queer magical realism, as the women’s sex worker collective is watched over by Auntie Encarna, an immortal witch, a wraith exiled from a land of perpetual war, and a host of other supernatural characters.