Exploring “Home, Exile, and Return,” the UTM English and Drama Society hosted the first of their 2017/2018 series of visiting speakers on November 20th. The event hosted Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, a novelist and winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction in 2017 for her debut novel, Small Beauty.
The novel Small Beauty tells the story of Mei. Coping with the death of her cousin, she abandons her life in the city to live in his now empty house in a small town. As she connects with her cousin’s history as well as her own, Mei learns about her aunt’s long-term secret relationship, and reflects on the trans women she has left behind.
Wilson-Yang is a poetry writer, with a focus in fiction. The writer explains how most of her work is written in chunks, where it “starts with an image and then I figure out what’s going on around it.” Speaking to an audience of students from the queer writing course at UTM, Wilson-Yang mentioned the book, Selfish Girl and Notes As a Crocodile, highlighting the themes of metaphoricism.
When asked about the recurring fire and water theme in Small Beauty, and its relation to the book’s focus on Frankenstein’s origins, Wilson-Yang described how essays by writer Susan Striker, which explored transgender identity often portray them as monsters, relate to the rage and fire elements in Chinese medicine.
Aliens, another recurring focus in Small Beauty, Wilson-Yang said were, “a cosmic symbol of older transwomen,” and were inspired by sci-fi creations such as Star Trek. Wilson-Yang says “Spock was a mixed-race individual […] and I latched on to that,” to her, this is a reflection of how we fit into this society and this is transparent in her writing of Mei’s observation and association with aliens in Connie’s sci-fi stories.
When asked by Stanka Radovic, associate professor in the English department and queer writing course instructor, about the changing seasons in Wilson-Yang’s writing, she said it reflects a state of “constantly grieving […] because of the things that have happened because of being trans,” adding that it also reflects her connection to a specific diaspora.
Speaking about a section of the story describing Mei’s floating, Wilson-Yang said it displays “a lack of connection to a culture,” and continues to describe the human-animal relationships described in the book, “Animals have all this wisdom, and are part of this world right next to us […] and I love animals.”
The novelist said she focused on writing about anger, and the book was a means of “dealing with it […] and learning how to reconcile.” In the same vein, the book explores the complicated layering behind positive recognition and clashes between cultures. An example of this was expressed in the scene describing a conflict in the supermarket.
Along with a metaphorical exploration of the culture of racial prejudice and sexual assault that she experienced, Wilson-Yang also wrote about Sandy, “a cis guy who is supportive of Mei” and that shows “how much Mei was grieving” by writing about how cool Sandy was.
Wilson-Yang, who lived in Guelph for 10 years, said, contrary to popular belief, “there are quite a few queer people there […]. These things are happening anywhere there are people.” Wilson-Yang’s Small Beauty eschews the tired gender novel stereotypes, placing Mei’s connections to her trans sisters and discovery of hidden trans history within rural Ontario near the center of Mei’s emotional landscape.
Where her characters experience depression, suicide, and empathy, Wilson-Yang said she realized the complexity of her characters. “We need to have evil transgender characters that are written in a good way.” In this way, Small Beauty hopes to revolutionize ideas of how trans people can exist within fiction.
Just as Mei finds who she is and how she can exist in a world with no remaining blood family through remembering her trans sisters, Wilson-Yang’s goal from her writing, and other trans-genre novels, is that they can help trans people find solace in the support of their communities.