What Is This Blog All About Anyways?: Or, Women, and Other Complicated Words

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about what the parameters of my website were going to be before I set it up, although I admittedly probably didn’t think the cheesy name Canadian lesbrarian through well enough.  Oh well, I’m stuck with it now!  Anyway, I knew right away that I wanted to limit the site to Canadian authors and/or content, because there were already high quality more general lesbian book blogs out there—I’m looking at you, the lovely Lesbrary!  Actually, I couldn’t believe that nobody else had started a Canadian lesbian book blog before I got around to it.

Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian is actually an adapted and extended version of the PhD thesis I was planning before I hightailed it out of grad school—no offense to those of you still trucking away at the academic grind.  Best of luck, suckers!  No really, good luck.  Seriously.  Anyway, I had planned on focusing on Canadian and women’s literature, because I wanted to write about queer Canadian women’s writing.  Easy peasy, right?  I thought so.

Shani Mootoo, when is your next book coming out?  I've been patiently waiting for so long.

Shani Mootoo, when is your next book coming out? I’ve been patiently waiting for so long. (via http://www.penguinbooksindia.com)

When I was setting up the blog, I was also pissed off that in general things known as LGBTQ tend to actually be mostly G, with a side of L and little-to-no BTQ, so I wanted to make a concerted effort to, uh, not write about cis gay men (as much as I love you, my queer brothers).  I was also concerned about the lack of attention that queer authors and characters of colour had gotten, and wanted to highlight writers I loved, such as Shani Mootoo, who I thought weren’t as widely read as they should have been.  In addition, I wanted to read and discover new queer Canadian writers of colour. 

At first, the lines I drew were pretty clear and straightforward:  authors and/or characters had to identify as trans or cis women, had to fall somewhere on the LBTQ spectrum, and they had to have some connection to Canada, whether it was the author’s nationality/place of birth or residency/etc., or the setting of the book.  I was very specific that the website was not just for lesbians and bi women.  I really wanted (and want) to read any and everything that was by Canadian trans women, and I could care less whether they identify as straight or LBQ.  There is so little published fiction by trans women at all that I have even reviewed The Collection, an anthology of trans fiction writers who are almost all American, besides the very exciting up-and-coming writer Casey Plett, from Winnipeg (check out my review of her other story that was published in Plenitude magazine here).

This is Casey Plett (via http://theheroines.blogspot.ca/). You should read her stuff (in The Collection and Plenitude).

Hi, Casey Plett   You should read her stuff (in The Collection and Plenitude). (via http://theheroines.blogspot.ca/)

This all got a bit complicated, however, when I realized I actually wanted to include writers who didn’t fall under the rubric I had set up.  In fact, one of the authors, Ivan E. Coyote, who was one of the inspirations for the site and originally one of the writers I was so excited to read and talk about in the first place, started using the pronoun they.  I also wrote a review of a debut short story collection by Rae Spoon—another writer who uses they.  Oh yeah, and Elisha Lim’s amazing zine Favourite Dating Tales 2009-2013.  Most recently, I read and reviewed Brian Francis’s young adult novel about an assigned-male thirteen-year-old whose gender identity (present and future) is not that clear.  It was one of the things that I really loved about the book, actually.  All of this didn’t really fit in the constraints I had established.  Hmm.  What exactly had I meant by the term ‘woman’ anyway?

How problematic is it if I go so far as to say that I guess what I meant by ‘woman’ is ‘not-man’?  I know, I kinda sound like Monique Wittig.  If I continue to say that my site focuses on women, is it ever okay to include people who use the pronoun ‘they’ and/or identify as genderqueer? For example, in this recent interview with Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, Ivan Coyote talks about their complicated relationship to ‘woman’:

Take this interview, for example. I am really grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, but I don’t really identify as a woman, I identify as trans, and although I have struggled with the very same misogyny and homophobia and sexism that women writers do, I don’t really fit here. I don’t not fit either, and I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but the truth of it is that gender politics are complicated for me. I feel like even to speak here, I have to deny some part of myself, or, even worse, worry that I am taking up space where I shouldn’t.

There are two important things that I took from this interview.  The first was that it gave me a well-timed reminder about how misgendering is a form of violence and to be diligent about writing about people according to their self-identifications.  This is something that you would hope LGB writers would have no problem getting, but I recently had to let a lesbian fiction site know (twice, actually, before they changed anything) that it wasn’t okay to use ‘she’ for Coyote.  Pretty disappointing.

Ivan Coyote

I just really love Ivan Coyote’s work.  Also, this picture of them. (via http://www.uwinnipeg,ca)

The second is what I read into Coyote’s comment that they are taking up space where they shouldn’t.  The first thing that came to my mind is that this space for women is being offered to someone on the trans masculine scale but perhaps not to someone on the trans feminine one—even someone who simply identifies as a woman.  Maybe this isn’t what Ivan meant at all, or maybe they meant more than one thing.  But if you’ve followed the politics of the exclusion of trans women in queer women’s spaces (such as Michfest), you know exactly what I’m talking about: that fucking transmisogny disguised as ‘womyn-born womyn’ crap.  Transmisogny disguised as ‘feminism.’

So, by including folks on the trans masculine / male spectrum on my blog, I’m concerned about repeating or reinforcing the tendency in queer women’s communities to include this group at the exclusion of people on the trans feminine / female spectrum.  If you want to know more about this, see Julia Serano’s brilliant book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, as well as her latest (interesting but less ground-breaking) Excluded: Making Queer and Feminist Movements More Inclusive.  Like Serano, my experience in queer women’s communities has been to recognize a certain level of acceptance of trans men and people on the trans masculine spectrum as well as a glorification of masculinity that, as someone who is feminine, makes me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome sometimes.

Let me be clear: I’m not begrudging the place of trans men and trans masculine folks in my communities—but I am worried that this acceptance comes at the expense of people on the trans feminine / female spectrum.  I wonder why, for example, in the queer and trans basketball league I play in, I’ve met lots of lovely cis women and trans guys but no trans women.  Why do I know of so many more queer Canadian writers on the trans masculine / male scale than on the trans feminine / female one?

These are legitimate questions that I don’t have answers to.  So, I’m in the process of redefining the blog a bit.  I want to specifically include both writers who identify as women and those who don’t identify in the gender binary.  Articulating this succinctly is a bit troublesome, though.  I don’t want to define the blog by saying what I won’t or don’t want to talk about.  I want to put the emphasis on those writers who aren’t getting the attention they deserve, not back on the people everybody’s already talking about.  Who wants to follow a website called Casey The Canadian Lesbrarian: A Book Blog about Everyone except Cis Gay Men?

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Butch, Canadian, Ivan E. Coyote, Lesbian, News, Non-Canadian, Queer, Shani Mootoo, Trans, Trans Feminine, Trans Masculine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to What Is This Blog All About Anyways?: Or, Women, and Other Complicated Words

  1. Oh, Casey. I can’t tell you how much I connect with this. I went through the exact same thing with the Lesbrary and Fuck Yeah Lesbian Literature. I mean, my definition ended up as anyone who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man”. Which is ridiculous. It’s convoluted, and, I went through the exact same thought of not wanting to define people by what they’re not.

    Plus! Okay, so I want to include genderqueer/non-binary people at the Lesbrary, but by having a name that has “lesbian” inside it, is that inherently misgendering to include those people, regardless of the good intention of spreading the word about queer lit that doesn’t get enough attention?

    And then! There’s the gradients of sexuality, of course. I always wanted to include bisexual women as well, but even if I stick with only women being included, I can’t say “lesbian and bisexual women” because what about women who define themselves as pansexual? Or sexually fluid? Or don’t identify with any label? What about characters who mention one woman they were attracted to in the past, in passing, and then spend the rest of the novel with a guy?

    Oh, and also, what if the author identifies as a lesbian, but they book doesn’t have any lesbians? Or there’s a lesbian minor character? Or the author is straight, and one of the five main characters is bi?

    Oh, and even if I say “doesn’t identify as a man”, how am I supposed to know what a character identifies as? 90% of books don’t outright state the label a character personally identifies.

    I went through a pretty big debate on FYLL about including non-binary people and bisexual women on a tumblr titled “Fuck Yeah Lesbian Literature”. They said it should be all lesbian. I mean, I didn’t really care that they wanted me to exclude bisexuals because that seems ridiculous to me (so you can have the same novel exactly, with two women falling in love, but if one of them says they’re bi it’s not relevant anymore?), but including non-binary people was messier. Because I want to promote queer literature that isn’t just gay male lit: that’s why I started the blog! But a non-binary person reblogged and said they were offended to be included under the umbrella of lesbian. I never intended to do that, but I can see how it looks that way. (But then I realized that most of the critics were actually trans-exclusive radical feminists, so I wasn’t really concerned what they thought.) Very tricky.

    What it came down to for me was to try to be as inclusive as possible. And if the only way I can think of saying it is sloppy and imperfect, so be it. If people think something’s not relevant, fine. I’d rather try to promote queer literature as much as possible. I’m never going to include a book that’s just about a trans man, because I do feel like that is misgendering. I do still include non-binary literature because there is so little out there, that I really want to promote it. And sadly, there’s so little out there that it rarely comes up as an issue.

    SO YES. I get it.

    • I’m so glad to read this Danika! It’s nice to know that I am not alone in my defining struggles. What I really want to do is showcase queer lit that doesn’t get enough attention too and that feels relevant to me and that I think is well written but I guess even I’m not that clear on what that is.

      I guess with the misgendering and the name lesbrary, it would probably vary from person to person–what you could always do is check with the author? Trying to get traffic on the internet makes it also annoying, because it’s the term lesbian that gets hits and draws readers to your site. Even bisexual doesn’t have that same power, let alone terms like pansexual or dyke or sexually fluid. Queer is great, because it’s so inclusive, but it’s also problematic because it’s so inclusive and includes cis, bi, and/or gay men.

      The lesbrarian in my title refers to me, so I am hoping that readers see that as separate from who I’m interested in reviewing.

  2. Hello Casey and Danika! There’s something so moving and beautiful to me that you two are enjoying this dilemma! Neither of you seems driven by a genuinely exclusionary impulse, and that’s so sweet, you’re just trying to make more space for some voices you value.

    Lines are always drawn in the sand, right? So no matter where you draw the line, we’ll be able to come up with a case where you may want to redraw it. It’s in the very nature of language to be unable to present the firm delineations we wrongly ask of it. Gender itself is such a lovely example; there’s just no way to draw a line through gender that we can just walk away from. Gender will always press at the boundaries of language, because gender itself is beyond and before language.

    My own blog, attempting to be just about trans subjects, ran into a very similar problem, and I ended up making a category to review books about “related subjects.” In my own experience, for example, the separation we make between gender and sexuality is not so clear after all, and being trans has meant that I hold my sexuality very differently than cis people do. I have bastions of identity throughout the full set of sexual and gender identities – even “cis,” which I thought I was for quite a bit. I have been every letter in the alphabet soup, and now I don’t even know what to call myself. “Fresh.”

    In other words, reviewing books about being trans and femme led me to reviewing books about being lesbian, then bi, and as I reviewed more books about being trans and masculine the loop closes back around to books about gay males… In my own life my very queer body has become attracted to very straight cis men… and the circle is complete. Suddenly a story about a straight girl and a straight guy takes on a new resonance for me – but I still won’t review it on my site! That’s just going too far from my focus, even though it’s relevant.

    My own experience of the queer world has been explosively and pervasively inclusive. I fit everywhere and nowhere. We all have to draw lines somewhere, to get on with our lives, but I love it when the impulse to inclusion is so strong that our lines get smudged over and eventually lost – but you can still tell where we’re coming from.

    Thanks to you both!

    • Thanks so much for this response Chelsea! It’s really great to hear another blogger’s perspective and nice to hear that your journey has taken you in unexpected places too.

      I love that you have a positive take on the re-drawing of lines and smudging and losing of lines. So I should be excited that these things are coming up. In fact, I am glad that this has got me thinking about who I include on the site, and making me re-commit to promoting and seeking out queer voices that aren’t often heard–trans women in particular.

      Also, I love ‘fresh.’ Awesome.

  3. Casey, this is a great post and did a good job of reminding me that I need to read more queer theory! And, Danika, your comments are wonderfully insightful too; this is such a tricky issue and I’m so grateful that people like you and Casey are putting in the time and effort to not only think about these things but to put your thoughts out there and do your utmost to get the word out about great writers who would likely otherwise be overlooked, even if it’s uncomfortable sometimes to have to do that reflecting and self-evaluating in a public sphere.

    I just thought I’d add my two cents, as a writer and as someone fairly new to the ‘visibly queer’ fold, if I can call it that.

    My first novel came out last year, just as I was coming out (!) of a decade-long hetero relationship. The novel, quite by the accident of characters discovering themselves, included a gay relationship between two cis-male teenagers. While I’ve been out as queer to myself since being a teenager, and out to my former partner and friends and coworkers, I had no clear identity in the queer community, especially not as a queer writer. I toyed with the wording in my book cover bio and blurb, not wanting to negate my queerness but also not wanting to seemingly promise queer content involving women or ‘non cis-men.’ I ended up prevaricating and saying that I ‘attended queer literary events whenever I [could].’ I figured my readers could read between the lines. Then I tried to get reviews for my novel and encountered the problem of it just not fitting anywhere. A book, written by a queer cis-woman (with a name that can be read as male), with a gay male protagonist – it’s a bit problematic for reviewers. The queer women didn’t want it, the gay male bloggers didn’t want it, there wasn’t even a sliver of a chance of being reviewed on a mainstream book blog. It’s hard to place and, I confess, I pretty quickly gave up on marketing it, not really knowing who to market it to without negating some aspect of the novel or myself.

    My second novel will, I imagine, be equally problematic when published later this year. The main character undergoes a transition from male-identified to female-identified and is surrounded by a host of people figuring out identity in their own idiosyncratic way. None of the lesbian characters are dating people assigned female at birth. I have to figure out how to market this novel without being so overly vague that it’s easily ignored. Again, I’ll encounter the problem of having a name most commonly being read as male, while being a cis-woman, leading to being repeatedly misgendered in communication with potential reviewers, publishers, and literary agents. (Clearly, I get that these are small problems to have in the grand scheme of things.)

    The third novel (still in editing) will, I hope, prove a little easier! There are cis-women dating cis-women. It’s neatly queer. There is poly stuff and a bi-cis-man, but the focus of the novel is on the lesbians dating lesbians. I am toying with the idea of publishing this novel under a more traditionally female pseudonym instead of my own name, which seems ridiculous but which would, I think, expand my potential readership.

    What’s the point of all this? Well, I just wanted to highlight that blogs like yours, Casey, and the lesbrary, are incredibly important to writers who don’t fit the typical mainstream publishing mould in themselves or in their novels. Without knowing that thoughtful, insightful readers like yourselves are around and willing to reflect on your review policies and approach, it’d be all to easy to feel constrained when writing; to think that novels must be neat and identifiable in a singular fashion. In essence, to reflect not the incredible complexity of life, gender, and sexuality but the tidy apparatus of the culture industry at large.

  4. Thanks for this response L! It is so great to hear from an author’s perspective. Categories and boxes can be so useful and serve us well but they can also let us down in such a fundamental way. It’s so strange that you would think about using a female pseudonym when you are a woman. Something is strange about that…

    I am really happy that my blog can be a space welcoming to writers who don’t fit into the mainstream publishing industry. I also want to go further than that and make is inclusive of writers who don’t fit into the mainstream gay niche–in particular, trans women, which was a lot of my worry with this post.

    I think most of the best novels aren’t neat and identifiable, so keep writing those ones! I mean, gender and sexuality aren’t like that in real life, so why would you want to read about that in a book?

  5. Pingback: Link Round Up: February 20 – March 5 | The Lesbrary

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  7. Lisa Habermann says:

    absolutely! so true about little L, B, T and almost nothing for I & A. we’ve started a pride bookclub through our library and most of the available titles and sets are G. struggling to read the rainbow spectrum of the acronym, so we are alternating each set with a topic or theme suggested by the group.

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