If your world is determined to take you and your kind down, would you fight back? Kai Cheng Thom’s semi-autobiographical novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir takes this question to breathtaking and fantastical lengths. This book is squarely situated in the experiences of survival for transgender women of color in North America. Splattered over the news in the past several years have been increasingly regular accounts of violence against trans women (most notably, murder). Trans women of color are the targets of such disproportionate harm because of their multiple marginalized identities in a society structured around sexism, racism and transphobia. Kai Cheng Thom is a Chinese Canadian trans woman whose writings spring from these lived experiences. But rather than rehashing the trans narrative about being born in the wrong body, she crafts a magical story that highlights the resilience and power of her community members in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars.
This novel centers around a young transgender woman of Chinese descent who grows up isolated in an environmentally degraded town called Gloom with her doting younger sister and abusive parents. At the beginning of the story, she makes the hard decision to run away from home and seek a new life in a new city where she can be among trans femme community. In her new surroundings in the City of Smoke and Lights, she quickly finds herself in a group of trans women sex workers of all races, sizes and ages. Among outcasts of society, our protaganist is kindly taken in as a little sister by their group leader, Kimaya. Her world explodes open as she discovers this chosen family network of femme mythology, tragic personal narratives and extraordinary skills. There is also incredible suffering and injustice experienced here. When yet another one of their community members is murdered by a john, the group springs into action and forms the Lipstick Lacerators. This gang trawls the city by night to fight back their male abusers and keep each other alive, eventually making a name for themselves.
Thom has turned these stories of abuse and violence in the trans community and turned them into an action-packed, dystopian novel where trans women are superheroes and in control of their own lives. This parallel world is a far cry from the realities of many trans women of color, who are subject to daily harassment, unemployment, homelessness and policing just for occupying their social identities. This novel is uniquely empowering because it rejects the narrative spun in the mainstream news that trans women are only dead victims to be mourned. In an interview with Teen Vogue earlier this year, Thom says, her book shows readers that trans women are “alive, are full of potential, and are dangerous — and deliciously so“.
In the novel, trans women have at their disposal a wide range of creative tools and weapons to ensure their survival and joy. Prominent in the book is the way that the fierce, fabulous femmes perform to make themselves more feminine and “fishy”, not due to mere vanity, but so that they might be able to more successfully navigate the outside world as women. Of course, this leads to tensions and jealously within the group. Many of them, including our protaganist, visit plastic surgeon Dr. Crocodile for hormone replacement therapy or surgical alteration in exchange for participating in an exploitative science experiment, because they do not have money to pay. In a more literal sense, femme glamour such as tall heels (“a femme’s heels are her armour”, says a local shopkeep), luscious locks of hair, painted nails, and fabulous dresses are sources of power and pride for the fierce, fabulous femmes. In the harrowing crux of the story, the famed ancestral First Goddess who is believed to watch over all of the femmes makes an appearance to forever alter the future of our protoganist.
Besides being a thoroughly entertaining read, Thom invites the reader to reconsider the negative portrayal of trans women as passive recipients of injustice in our society, and recognize their humanity and value as our community members, friends, sisters, lovers, and partners. What would it look like to heal from family trauma, state violence, and patriarchy? What would it look like to build a more loving and open world where trans women of color belong? Thom asks us to listen to her and her community members’ stories, support more trans of color writing and not forget their struggles.