Are There Lesbians? Yes
On the day a clan of dead mermaids washes up on the shore of her hometown, the unnamed protagonist leaves her home of the City of Smoke and Lights and is taken to the Street of Miracles where she becomes friends with other trans women sex workers. After one of their number is murdered, the protagonist and a number of her new found family form the gang The Lipstick Lacerators and wreak their vengeance on the male visitors to the street.
CW: transphobia, transphobic violence (including mentions of murder and rape), self-harm and suicidal ideation
Do you ever read the first sentence of a book and immediately know that this is a book you will wish you had written? That maybe, in another life, or later in this one, you could write? Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars felt like that book to me as soon as I opened it. The first page felt as familiar to me as the blood in my veins and so I fell in love.What is it about the trans experience that is captured so well by semi-fictional biography? So many queers I know are into myth, fairy tales, mysticism, the aesthetics of religious iconography, myself among them. It makes sense to me that we would make ourselves into fairy creatures, make our own myths, when we don’t have many in the standard cultural canon to identify with. And let’s be honest, being queer in and of itself makes you into a liminal being, enough that sometimes it is easier to identify with legend rather than history. Hell, I could wax lyrical for days about transformation and threshold-crossing as being integral (metaphorically and literally ) to explaining the trans experience, but I promised myself I wouldn’t get too purple prose-y or academic or go on a wayward tangent.
The novel is broken up into three parts, interspersed throughout the book. There is the primary narrative, following the unnamed protagonist as she leaves home and navigates the dark and mysterious world that is the Street of Miracles, there are her letters to her little sister Charity, and there are the numbered poems each titled “song of the pocket knife” and detailing the protagonists relationship to self-harm with her ultimately entrusting the knife to Charity. I found the mini-chapters of the letters and poems really rounded out my sense of the protagonist herself, but also her effect on the world, and particularly her sister whom she had to leave behind in order to escape her family and live her life as a trans woman.I loved the Street of Miracles as it both represented a place and a people. How many queer communities can identify with a certain place being theirs, as being a place where they congregate, live and die, love and lose, dance and sing and commit acts of incredible violence both to one another and to those who would harm their community? The Street of Miracles as a concept feels like it hearkens back to younger years when queer people would live or die by their community. Perhaps I’m just missing social interaction because of yet another COVID lockdown, but I’ve never really had that real sense of queer community here in Sydney. Maybe it’s just a regional thing, but it definitely feels like spaces are geared to gay men specifically, or the more politically-minded, and as a burnt-out queerdo I long for the kind of community that the protagonist found in the trans women of The Street of Miracles. In part, I found words for my longing in Fierce Femmes, because it is a book about belonging and wanting and loneliness and all the complex feelings that come with living in a world where you have to make your own magic.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is a lyrically written trans fairy tale that pulls no punches. Despite it’s magical setting, or perhaps because of it, the world Kai Cheng Thom paints is as raw and unforgiving as the one we currently inhabit. It does not shy away from the men and cops that endanger trans women, young and old alike. Rather it embraces the just anger that should be felt and, through the collective love of a group of trans women, turns that rage into a protective weapon. This novel offers the comfort that there is a little bit of magic in being ourselves and fighting for what we believe in, and there is even more magic in remaining connected with our inner softness and tenderness throughout it all.