To help celebrate this month's Australian publication of Small Beauty, and in anticipation of next week's Melbourne launch, today we're so thrilled to present a conversation between the book's author jiaqing wilson-yang and the artist of the beautiful cover artwork, Lee Lai.
Small Beauty follows the story of Mei, a mixed-race Chinese trans-girl, returning to small-town Ontario (Canada) following the death of her cousin. When I first read this gem of a debut novel I was humbled by the simultaneously sweet and unsettling sense of nostalgia. Though the story centers Mei’s motivations, grief, and development, it also vibrates with the presence of past generations of queers, transgender people, and the Chinese-Canadian diaspora. It was a remarkable experience to hear so many voices, in a story so steeped in solitude and quietness.
Illustrating the cover for the Brow Books edition of this novel was a damn treat and honour, and a welcome opportunity to revisit a story that deserves multiple reads. I chatted with wilson-yang over Skype: my Montreal apartment to her friend’s place in Newfoundland, with an Australian cattle dog called Gracie in the room with her as our witness.
Lee Lai: I was so impressed to learn that this was your debut novel. Could you talk a little about what the process was like, going from writing shorter pieces to something novel-length? Was the story of Mei something you were dwelling on for a long time, before it turned into Small Beauty?
jiaqing wilson-yang: Not quite, I feel like Mei’s character ended up being a kind of thing that wove together the other pieces. I’d been thinking a lot about Connie’s character—the older transwoman—and writing about older transwomen a lot because they’re such a huge thing in my life, I just love them so much and I had a bunch of jobs working with a bunch of older trans-women of colour, so I was just thinking about it all the time. So Connie’s character had to be more fleshed out, and then also Sandy’s character, with this goose, had been another thing I’d been stewing on, and then the thing that sort of ended up weaving all those different things together ended up being this transwoman who had access to their lives and knew them.
Lai: That makes so much sense, in thinking about the way in which the stories jump forwards and backwards a lot, but there’s this commonality and thread between them. I definitely appreciated reading about intergenerational trans-relationships – that was like a balm for my soul.
Lai: I think you’ve probably heard this a lot, but—reading it from the perspective of being trans and mixed-race Chinese and queer—it felt like there were all these little bread crumbs and familiar nods to those experiences throughout the book. Was that very intentional, or did it just fall into place?
wilson-yang: I think a little bit of both. I think there were some parts where I was pretty intentionally trying to write about ancestors and things. Then other things just happened in trying to write a character in a way that felt authentic to me.
Lai: When I’m writing a character that feels authentic to me, it sometimes feels horrifically exposing. How did you comes to terms with that in terms of putting this into the world as a very finished piece?
wilson-yang: I was definitely trying really hard not to write about myself. But I was also thinking about what stories I felt like I was allowed to write, if that makes sense? I was like, from what viewpoints can I write something? Probably a mixed-race, trans-perspective is the most authentic viewpoint I can write from. But also really not wanting to make an autobiography or a memoir. I ended up having a few other people read it to see if they felt like it was too clichéd, or if I was drawing on too many tropes or whatever. Once I was done, I really needed other people to look at it to be like ‘no, no this is cool’ before I felt ok with it going out into the world.
Lai: In terms of avoiding tropes, it was so nice to read a trans-narrative that isn’t about identity: Mei isn’t grappling with transition, or having a gender identity crisis, and that already breaks out of such a traditional trans-literature mold. Was that something you were always really determined to do?
wilson-yang: Yeah totally. I’m into trans-stories that are not just focused on a transiting narrative. I think there are lots of good places for those narratives, and there’s some of them that I really love and some of them that I don’t – I think is important that we have a range of narratives and can be like ‘yes this one, no that one doesn’t fit for me’. But I really wanted to see more stories where our gender identity just isn’t the main focus of our lives. Because there’s other things that happen, in our days [laughing], I mean sure, I think about being trans all the time, but I also think about other things, right? Casey Plett wrote a pretty cool article about trans memoir and moving away from it, and how important it is for us to just have stories of us existing and living and all the different ways that we do. So yeah, that was intentional. But also not that hard, right? Cause like what else do I do other than think about hormone doctors, and you know, my facial hair? [laughing]. There are so many other things.
Lai: How do you feel about this landing publicly in the genre of trans-literature? There’s also so much going on in this story terms of, you know, race rage, for example, and different Canadian-Chinese experiences. Do you feel comfortable with it mostly landing as queer trans-literature?
wilson-yang: Yeah I guess so. I mean like you said, there’s a lot of other things happening in it. I think with the other things that come up in it— like race and class and sex work—I don’t try and hide it, I just don’t try and flag it so much. And I think there’s markers for folks who are like, 'oh yeah I know what she’s up to'. But I guess I didn’t expect it to get flagged as anything other than a trans book cause there’s trans people in it, and I’m trans, and I don’t think we’re at a point yet where people are going to be like ‘this is really cool Chinese-Canadian fiction’, and that’ll be the first thing that they say about it. I feel fine about it being pegged as a trans-book, right now, if that makes it easier for people to see trans-writers as writers that have more stories to tell than the kinds of identity stuff that we talked about. I think for where we are right now, I feel stoked about it, and it’s gotten so much more positive attention than I ever thought that it would, it’s difficult for me to be unhappy with any of the responses [laughing].
Lai: In terms of it being Canadian-Chinese fiction as well, as you said, how do you feel about it landing in an Australia context?
wilson-yang: Literally the last thing I expected, and stoked. I’m still a little speechless by it. I follow Brow Books on Instagram and I’ve seen the posts on it, and we’re talking about me doing a Skype reading for the book launch on the 1st of August… even when I got the printing of the books with your cover, it’s just like, what is even happening right now? I’m still kinda gobsmacked by it all.
Lai: In a slightly selfish way, I wonder if I can ask you about the cover imagery for a moment?
Lai: For me, going through the story for the second time and specifically searching for imagery that I might want to draw upon, it was kind of a treasure trove because there’s so much symbolism in this book. The goose cover on the Metonymy Press edition has a very specific link to the story. Without giving away too much of the narrative, could you talk a little bit about the significance of the plant for you?
wilson-yang: Yeah. The plant is the obvious metaphor of being this thing she ends up taking care of as she’s taking care of herself, so there’s like a mirroring of herself in this plant. And then as she’s moving around in time, the plant is this thing that—no pun intended—really roots her in a linear timeframe. It also represents another relationship with her aunt: she’s starting to heal old wounds in taking care of the plant. But as the cover shows, there’s some moments of frustration with that. I was so used to looking at the geese cover on the Metonymy version of it, and really linking the words "small beauty" to geese. But then once I had seen the cover all mocked up, with your drawing of the plant, and then the title there, it made rethink the title of the book again.
Lai: I love that you mention ancestral healing in that way. I love the presence of ghosts in this book, and I was really touched by the scenes in which she’s talking to her grandma and her grandma’s giving her these critiques and guidance along the way.
wilson-yang: I think for trans-folks, for folks of colour, I think also for me – as a mixed kid, I grew up in a fairly white town. There was a handful of folks of colour but not too many, and my Dad and my siblings were the only other Chinese folks that I actually had any connection to in that town. We would go into Toronto sometimes and see my grandparents [who lived in Toronto, my Chinese grandparents] but there’s kind this isolation that comes with being mixed and being trans, and being in super white spaces. There’s just all of these little ways that you feel like an alien, but you feel like you should be fitting in more. It’s hard to describe, and it’s also hard for me to put my finger on it sometimes. My grandmother passed away when I was in my late teens and we were pretty tight, and I find myself often thinking about her when I’m kind off rudderless or feeling out of place, cause she was someone who was consistently awesome in my life. So in trying to think of who would be Mei’s guiding voice, I was like, 'well, probably your grandma'. There’s obviously so many different kinds of Chinese people in the world, but I think there’s ways that I experience specific Chinese love and discipline that’s a little harsh...
Lai: [laughing] Yep
wilson-yang: ...but so loving. So yeah, that’s sort of where that came from, trying to put forward the idea, for myself and for other people, that even though we’re all over the world, our ancestors are still with us in some way, and we carry them where we go.
Melbourne folks: to watch and hear jiaqing read live (via video) from Small Beauty and discuss the work further with Adolfo Aranjuez, do please join us at Hares and Hyenas on Wednesday the 1st of August.
jiaqing wilson-yang is a trans writer living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Small Beauty is her first novel and won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. Her work has appeared in Carte Blanche, Room Magazine, Ricepaper, The Kit, and Poetry is Dead. Sometimes she plays music.
Lee Lai is an Asian-Australian comix artist currently based in Montreal. Published in literary journals such as The Lifted Brow, Overland, The Suburban Review, and Pencilled In, Lee Lai also writes advice comics as Baby W. She works in Montreal as part of En Masse Pour Les Masses, a group which facilitates collaborative creations of murals between artists and schoolchildren.