Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom
Published by: Metonymy Press
Genre: Queer Fiction
Order at: Publisher
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: An own voices story of finding self, family, and love (in that order) as told by a young, fierce, escape artist, also known as an Asian trans girl, poet, fighter, ghost-friend, and owner of a fabulous pair of red shoes.
Plot: Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom is the highly sensational, ultra-exciting, sort-of true coming-of-age story of a young Asian trans girl, pathological liar, and kung-fu expert who runs away from her parents’ abusive home in a rainy city called Gloom. Striking off on her own, she finds her true family in a group of larger-than-life trans femmes who live in a mysterious pleasure district known only as the Street of Miracles. Under the wings of this fierce and fabulous flock, Dearly blossoms into the woman she has always dreamed of being, with a little help from the unscrupulous Doctor Crocodile. When one of their number is brutally murdered, the protagonist joins her sisters in forming a vigilante gang to fight back against the transphobes, violent johns, and cops that stalk the Street of Miracles. But when things go terribly wrong, she must find the truth within herself in order to stop the violence and discover what it really means to grow up and find your family.
The book starts like this:
I don’t believe in safe spaces. They don’t exist. I do, however, believe in dangerous stories: The kind that swirl up from inside you when you least expect it, like the voice of a mad angel whispering of the revolution you are about to unleash.
A startling revelation considering the world we currently live. One in which there is growing violence against the transgender and gender non-conforming community. According to the Human Rights Campaign and Southern Poverty Center, 2016 surpassed 2015, and 2017 is set to surpass 2016 in terms of deaths. During one week in March alone, four trans women were killed—and with little spotlight on their stories or to any after-the-fact justice made on their behalf. Add to that the attempted and, sometimes successful, reversal of hard-won rights to access public spaces, only to have the importance of this diminished, as if bathroom laws neither give someone the right to exist or have basic needs met.
All this to say, it’s about damn time someone shared some of this rage, crafting a vision with a desire for revenge. Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is this story.
The structure, with few exceptions, read like a series of short stories. I was several chapters in before seeing their connection: a nameless MC who went with her sister to a place in Gloom where giant mermaids die, odes to a pocket knife, a story the bees living inside her body, a tale of sitting in cemeteries—mostly because there was a restaurant across the way who would share delicious left-over food because the MC felt a bit like family to the owner.
Dearly runs away from Gloom to the City of Smoke and Lights and, specifically, to the Street of Miracles, where she becomes the baby of all femmes, taken into the warm bosom of Kimaya—mother to a hundred girls, lover of Rapunzelle. The cities and places are also the locals of myths and legends. Like the names given to these cities, the names given to the characters indicate how far this story deviates from the ordinary. The girl gang (Lipstick Lacerators) created out of the murder of one of their own is made up of the likes of The Duchess and The Goddess of War.
The story continues with chapters entirely made up of a conversation overheard, a letter home, a poetry reading, more odes to the pocket knife. Revenge happens. So does seeking wisdom from a Witch.
Throughout the entire story is this theme of lashing out, of hurting others because you can’t stop hurting yourself, and, at the same time, hurting others to make the hurting stop. This is so poignant and well done. While the entire thing is magical, there is no magical fix, if that makes sense. The issues present at the beginning of this story are still at the end, though they have shifted and changed. As has Dearly.
Everything about this book feels personal. The lines drawn of what is acceptable, what is not, and why are shared with devastating insight. I’m not sure about other readers but I came away with a greater understanding of being unable to judge what which I’ve not lived.
Bottom line – I am blown away by Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars. Not only that, I am guaranteed to pick up everything Kai Cheng Thom has written in the past and will write in the future.
What you may not like: While there is a love story and a happy ending, the two do not coincide. In this story, Dearly’s self-love and acceptance transcends all else. The MC knows herself and it is more important to be in a place she belongs than with her lover, whom she loves and by whom she is beloved.
But I also understood.
Note also trigger-warnings: violence, self-harm, transphobia, implied dub-con.
What you will love: The gorgeous, fierce, vulnerable, lyrical, no-holds-barred, brave ass, visceral writing. If—no—when you go to the author’s website, the first sentence you will see in the ‘About’ page reads: ‘I want to find the place where my fear ends and your body begins.” This says so much about her. If her words don’t reach out and grab you by the throat (or, you know, wherever) I will eat this review. While she identifies as a writer, it’s her poetry that infuses her essays and prose. It’s inescapable, transformative, and perhaps most importantly, accessible. I am so, so, so, so hooked.
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra