The below extract is from jiaqing wilson-yang’s stunning debut, Small Beauty, out Monday 2 July. Pre-order your copy here or find it in bookstores around the country.
The weather has softened. With slower winds, the trees look suddenly taller. Snow melts off their branches. They are hatching.
Even with the calming wind, Sandy’s old parka and her double scarves aren’t enough. She is freezing. Winter and snow are things she loves. She used to think she loved the cold, but now she understands she had just romanticised it, melted the memories, as if walking in someone else’s dream.
The city, despite all the ways it pushed callouses into her, softened her tolerance for cold. She used to spend whole days in snowy woods, lost and a little stoned. Now she stays on the path as best as she can, for a few hours at most. She feels her blood heating up as she takes step after careful step, keeping a pace that is more habit than intention. Her feet break through the crust of frozen snow, lost for an instant below the brittle curvature of the trail. A shell cracking. Her thighs sting from the cold, and her sweat freezes on the hair of her brow. Where she had been engulfed in the landscape as a child, she is now caught in her body’s reaction to it.
As she walks up to the house, a flock of birds scatter from a tree out back and seem to hover around the house a moment. They are held in a fragmented union before setting off in all directions. Snow grinds beneath her feet, packed down into the driveway from her walking to and from the road. The sound welcomes her from the concession onto the property. She passes fences, fallen and no longer dividing road from field. She has been walking around the woodlot across from the house, ambling through the trails with Hazel, Sandy’s dog.
It was the phone that scattered the birds. “I have to figure out how to turn down the ringer,” she says under her breath, cloudy and visible. Trying to run in Sandy’s snow boots only makes her feel as though she is faster, but it does little more than heat her up. The answering machine uses some kind of mini tape that she hasn’t been able to find anywhere in the house.
“Hello?” She grabs the phone off the living room wall. She is out of breath. Boots on, tracked-in snow melting a path behind her. Hazel approaches, tail wagging, pushing her wet nose into the back of Mei’s hand.
“Hello, darling! Jesus, Mei, you took your time getting to the phone. It must have rung thirty times—you’re lucky I’m busy looking for a job. I just put you on speaker and waited for your answering machine to pick up. Which it didn’t. You do get cell reception out there. I know you do, I looked it up. I don’t see why I need to call you at this number and wait for ages while you do whatever it is you’re doing—god, you’re breathing heavy. Did I interrupt you? Is there someone special there? Is there? I told you! You’ll go to the woods and meet one of those woodsy dykes! And she’ll—”
“Hi Annette,” Mei interrupts. Her lungs are taking in the warmer air of the house, softening. “There are no woodsy dykes in my house. I wish. Just me. And Hazel.”
“Who is Hazel?”
“Sandy’s dog. I think she’s a cattle dog. Or maybe a weird Corgi mix? Do they have Corgis on farms?” Mei unzips Sandy’s parka and walks into the kitchen, boots clunking on the linoleum.
“Right. The dog. I forgot. I don’t know about Corgi dogs or whatever. Why are you asking me? Aren’t there people around that you can ask?” Mei can hear, beneath the sarcasm, her friend’s worry.
“Well. Yeah. Probably.” Mei plays with the phone cord and clumsily sits down at the kitchen table, pausing before kicking her boots off, an imprecise action that takes her socks off as well.
“You still haven’t talked to anyone, have you?” The question is more of a statement; Annette knows her friend.
Almost ashamed, Mei pauses and says, “I, uh… I have.” She stands, silently wincing as she steps barefoot into a pool of melted snow.
“Liar. Two months! You’ve been gone two months. You’re connecting with the dog? Don’t make me come out there. Go make some friends. You grew up in the woods. Go make a fire and wear practical shoes.”
She is right, Mei needs to get out. The demanding love of her pushy friend is cold water on a sleepy face.
“Sandy grew up here, not me. I just visited sometimes.” Mei walks to the sink and stares out the window over the back of the property. The goose has returned and is looking in the window. She should probably stop feeding it.
Annette won’t let Mei dodge the direction of the conversation. “For, like, months at a time…” Mei can hear Annette rolling her eyes.
“It’s just that… I just don’t know how to meet people here.” She knows Annette won’t buy it, but she is in retreat, losing the conversation and firing off poorly aimed defences.
“That’s bullshit. Is there a bar?”
Mei is caught. Sliding the small, mostly dead plant on the counter closer to her, she sticks her finger in the soil. Still damp.
“Yeah, there’s a bar.”
She had moved the plant from Bernadette’s room to the window by the kitchen a few weeks ago to see if it needed more light. No change yet. The pile of brown crumpled heart-shaped leaves hasn’t sprouted anything new.
“Well. It can’t be that different out of the city. Go to a bar. Sit there. Talk to someone. Introduce yourself.”
Mei can’t be irresolute any longer. “Why did you call?” Mei crosses her arms, pinning the phone between her cheek and shoulder and leaning on one hip, picking dead leaves off the plant.
“Harsh, my love, harsh. I called because you wanted to know if anything happened with welfare. I called the automated system. They think you’re still in the city, trying to look for work and not living in your dead cousin’s empty house. In the winter. Alone…” She pauses. “Anyway, they want you to go to a resumé-writing workshop in two weeks.”
“Agh. Those are the worst! Everyone hates being there, even the facilitators. People ask things like, ‘I was a brain surgeon before I moved to Canada and now I can’t even get a job cleaning hotels. What should I put on my resumé other than the fifteen university degrees and decades of experience I have?’ And the facilitator will say something like, ‘What font did you use?’ It’s racist. I bet I can skip it and they won’t notice. I’m supposed to be inept at getting a job anyways, right? That’s why I’m on welfare.” Mei leans further back on her hip and supports herself in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. The solidity of the house confirms her position.
“Whatever you say. If they cut you off, it wasn’t because of me.”
“I know, Annette, I know.”
“I worry about you out there alone.”
The friends continue talking, Annette catching Mei up. Her clients, her dates. Good ones and bad. Mei hears about what’s happening with the women at the drop-in the two of them used to visit, and new dramas she is happy to miss out on. How Annette is sick of being the only Asian transsexual left in Dundurn, which they both know is a lie. Annette is one of the only people Mei wants to keep in contact with from the city, and the only one whose phone number seems to work. Her friend Connie’s number isn’t working these days, a semi-regular occurrence. She probably just missed a few payments. Once Mei hangs up, she cradles the phone and resumes looking through the window in the kitchen. What if she stopped feeding the goose and it didn’t leave? It seems like it will be around all winter. She looks down at Hazel, who is licking her pant leg.
Seeing a stale heel of bread on the counter, Mei asks the dog, “Who says I’m not making friends?” She walks to the fridge and pulls out a handful of spinach to put in a bowl. “Ya see? A snack for our friend,” she says proudly, taking the bowl out to the goose.
Aside from her interaction with the grocery store clerks every week or so, she doesn’t meet anyone until the spring.
Praise for Small Beauty:
“Small Beauty embodies everything I look for in new queer writing: a scorchingly original and engrossing voice, telling a story we haven’t heard before, that’s still somehow familiar, humane and heart-bruisingly recognisable.”
“A quiet, gorgeous meditation on grief, race, and community, wilson-yang’s writing more than delivers on the title’s promise. ... Small Beauty joins the small but growing numbers of trans-genre novels written by transgender women that are revolutionizing our ideas of how trans people can exist within fiction”
Morgan M. Page, Lambda Literary
“wilson-yang is a fucking beautiful writer and her lyrical prose about this messed-up girl is some of the most gorgeous writing trans lit has been blessed with.”
Casey Plett, The Winnipeg Review
“Every paragraph is dense with meaning, each one concise, descriptive, and exacting, I found wilson-yang’s sentences tantamount to poetry and was struck immediately by the tautness of the text.”
jiaqing wilson-yang is a trans writer living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Small Beauty is her first novel and won the 2017 Lambda Literary Awardfor Transgender Fiction. Her work hasappeared in Carte Blanche, Room Magazine, Ricepaper, The Kit, and Poetry is Dead. Sometimes she plays music.