The only thing more powerful than a femme is the network of relations she’s built herself; our love for each other is fierce. There is something miraculous about femme networks of care and all the ways they can fuel you, sneak up when you least expect it, protect you, set you free. There are potent magics, sometimes dangerously so, in the innumerable manifestations of femme, and in the boundless ways we care for each other and our kin.
In her debut novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, Kai Cheng Thom revels in femme magic, sweeps you up into all of its possibilities, twirls you around, and spits you back out, changed for the better. Thom’s prose is playful and quick to match her fantastical narrative, and the text is seamlessly interwoven with letters and poetry.
Blending the fantastic and the real into a smooth and indistinguishable concoction, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is the tale of a young trans girl’s journey to loving herself. As Trish Salah notes on the back of the book: “The first lie is that this book is a memoir, the second is that it is not.” A coming of age story, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars follows our protagonist as she moves from her parents’ home in the small town of Gloom to the City of Smoke and Lights. There, she joins a community of femmes and never forgets to write back home to her little sister Charity.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is at once a response and an homage to the traditional trans memoir. Thom cheerfully disavows any promise of reliability as a memoirist in the classical sense, and it is this playfulness with genre that creates new possibilities for what can be considered trans memoir. Gabrielle Bellot writes, “it’s hard not to love a book about being trans called a memoir that is so utterly different from the conventional trans memoir, partly by being a novel, mainly by being so exuberantly experimental and in love with language for the sake of it.” By setting aside coming out and transition details, which are often key to a trans memoir, Thom makes room for the powerful and complex relationships between femmes. In the process of breaking apart and gluing memoir back together, Thom has also written a fairy tale, a love story, and a love letter from one trans woman of colour to other trans women and femmes of colour.
Femme magics permeate the book, and nothing is left untouched, not even the setting. On the Street of Miracles, lit by floating lanterns, it is always night, and fragrant smoke always lingers in the air. While most other people come and go to party, many femmes live and work here, and “it is their magic, more than anything else, that sustains the everlasting festival that the Street of Miracles is so well-known for.”
Using femmes’ relationships to place, defined through their labour as bartenders and sex workers, and through their lore and tragedy—the literal spilled blood of the First Femme—on the Street of Miracles, Thom exposes the complexities of urban geographies. The femmes occupy space the rest of city has left vacant, and even though many femmes don’t have the mobility to leave the Street of Miracles, it is their magic that makes it an intriguing place to visit for outsiders and home for many femmes.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is grounded in femmes’ relationships with other femmes, beginning with the narrator’s relationship with her sister and continued through her chosen kin. Thom gives careful attention to the ways that loving and supporting each other is complicated for femmes. Honouring her relationship with Charity across distance, the protagonist writes letters home. These letters remind us of the unreliability of our narrator as she lies, assuring her little sister that her life in the big city is much more boring and mundane than we as readers know it to be. The lies contained within the letters double as a caring practice, attempting to protect young Charity from the violent realities of being femme in the world.
For our protagonist, a community of femmes is easy to find: “You can find them anywhere if you know how to look, and believe me, I am looking. Can’t take my eyes off them: these visions of what I could be. What I am becoming.” Alongside the protagonist, readers encounter diverse femininities and personalities in Kimaya, Rapunzelle, Valaria, Lucretia, and Alzena the Witch, among others, and are bound to fall in love with at least a few of them. The femmes exist together in community, and because of Thom’s rich character descriptions, each femme exists on her own, as she brings her own story and opinions to the workings of the group.
Thom hasn’t created a dream world of powerful, interesting, sexy femmes and called it a day; she’s written a real (yet still very magical) world of powerful, interesting, sexy femmes who dissent and have difficult relationships with one another. This is one of the most incredible parts of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars; the part where femmes are real enough to get mad and disagree and hurt each other. When bashing back (responding violently to violent attacks on trans women) becomes a central ideological question within the coven of femmes, it reminds us that difficult conversations and tough relationality within our communities help us to build worlds, with specifications to match our chosen forms of resistance.
Other times, difficult relationships between the femme comrades reveal the effects of living in white supremacist and transmisogynist systems, as femmes weaponize themselves against or protect themselves from each other; in an interview with Lee Pepper, Thom writes: “In my experience, trans women have very, very complicated relationships with one another – we are each others’ only true siblings in many ways, the only ones who can understand what it means to live in this transmisogynist society. And, like siblings, we are usually thrown into fierce competition with one another, for resources and for space. Like siblings, because we know each others’ heart so well, we also know each others’ weaknesses. We can hurt each other very, very deeply.” The complexity of trans women and femmes’ relationships with each other that Thom describes here is reflected in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars.
Adding to the intensity with which Thom describes the femmes and their network, is their romantic love for one another—they aren’t just and only friends, sometimes they are also lovers. They have legendary romances, and secret ones too. The femmes fight side by side, and off the battlefield they break up, make up, and make out. On the simplest level, these romances satisfy my intense desire for an end to the representation of platonic-only all-girl groups. More importantly though, in her review, Gwen Benaway describes how in these intimate moments “Kai Cheng … exposes the complexity of the bonds between trans women: how we can love, need, and hurt each other. It is rare to find a moment of affection in literature between trans women without anyone watching but us.” Thinking through kinship, especially among trans women and femmes, Thom doesn’t shy away from conflict or intimacy. Instead, she illuminates the ways these messy parts of relation are often necessary, sometimes powerful, and almost always magic.
I would be lying about the forceful femme magics of this book if I didn’t disclose that I was compelled to paint my nails to match the cover. You should read Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, send it to one of your best femme’s homes anonymously, and then lie when she asks you about it.
Until she reads it too and then you can really have a date over it.
You can get your copy of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir directly from Metonymy Press.