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The best book I’ve ever read about trans women’s friendships

Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) is an amazing novel about death, love, and television.

An armadillo, a heart, a squid, and lipstick adorn the cover of Little Blue Encyclopedia.
The cover of Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) features some of the beautiful illustrations from inside the book.
Courtesy of Metonymy Press
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

Before I came out as a trans woman, I never really cried. When I would see a sad movie or read a sad book, my eyes would put up a big [insert tears later] sign, and that would be enough. If I did actually, physically cry, my tears would come out in a trickle, as if they were dripping out of a leaky faucet. I could feel the place where my sadness lived, but I couldn’t access it properly, not even when some of the finest artists in the world were trying to push me there.

What did make me cry most was the yearning, the longing for some better, kinder world that lurked somewhere inside of me and emerged from the fog of myself only so often. I would catch glimpses of it here and there in art, but even then, even when most primed to cry, I would just sort of sit there and slowly leak.

The emotional shift after I came out — and especially after I began taking feminizing hormones — wasn’t sudden, but over time, it came to be dramatic. It wasn’t that I cried more; it was that I cried correctly. The disconnect between my body and brain gradually lessened, and suddenly, emotional centers that had felt distant and unknowable were right there. (This is an experience trans men report, too, so it has nothing to do with gendered stereotypes and everything to do with the ways that trans people come into themselves.)

What made me cry most, though, was the yearning and longing for a better, kinder world that was now impossible reach. I mourned all the years I didn’t get to live as myself — the friends I should have had, the things I should have done, the lives I should have lived. There’s a bittersweet quality to transitioning as an adult before you’ve reached middle age. You get so many years to live as yourself, but they’re always tinged with regret over the years you didn’t get.

All of the above is to say that Hazel Jane Plante’s novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) made me cry buckets. It’s maybe the best work of art I’ve ever seen depicting the complicated friendships that develop between trans women, and it made me miss, keenly, both a woman and a TV series that have never existed.

Little Blue Encyclopedia explores the ways that fandom can help us better express ourselves

A cat, as drawn by Onjana Yawnghwe
Onjana Yawnghwe’s illustrations introduce each new section of Little Blue Encyclopedia.
Onjana Yawnghwe/Metonymy Press

Little Blue Encyclopedia is pretty much laser-targeted at my particular interests. The novel is about two trans women who form a fast and deep friendship. It’s also about loving a TV show so much that you have to pull apart absolutely everything about it. So yes, this book resonated with and appealed to me on the level of its very specific premise alone.

The book also begins in territory that can be emotionally fraught. The narrator (who goes unnamed for most of the book) has recently lost her best friend, Vivian. Both characters are trans women — and the death of a trans woman is too often a salacious trope, deployed to suggest that we’re less than human at worst and careening toward inevitable doom at best. It’s one of those “handle with care” plot elements that too many stories get wrong.

But Plante herself is trans, so she knows exactly what story she’s telling from the word “go.” As the narrator mourns Vivian, she begins assembling an encyclopedia about a TV series called Little Blue, which Vivian dearly loved and the narrator came to love through Vivian. Vivian made the narrator watch it, and she loved Vivian so much that she ended up loving the show, too.

Little Blue is a fictional show that ran for one season on a fictional pay-cable channel, and it seems to be a weird cross between Lost and Gilmore Girls, about a mysterious island full of quirky locals. (To say I would watch this show if it were real and write several essays about how it was misunderstood is an understatement.) Each chapter of the book contains blurbs from the encyclopedia the narrator is writing, intertwined with memories of Vivian.

Little Blue Encyclopedia understands perfectly how pop culture — and pop culture fandom — can become bound up in our lives inextricably. As the narrator assembles her encyclopedia, memories of Vivian when she was alive start to trickle into the text. Sometimes the narrator is conscious of those memories taking over, and sometimes it happens almost without her having to try. (I think the fact that everybody in this fake TV show seems to be mourning someone or something is pointed, on the part of Plante.)

That pop culture savviness extends to the ways in which the book deploys real pop culture. When Vivian and the narrator talk about a real TV show (like the briefly name-checked Gilmore Girls), they talk about it in the way we might here in this world, and the book’s “soundtrack” (that is, every song mentioned in it) perfectly delineates where the narrator and Vivian’s tastes both come together and diverge. The narrator forcing herself to love Vivian’s favorite Britpop, for instance, feels a little like she’s drafting off the taste of a more charismatic friend. But in little stabs here and there, the reader gets a better sense of how the narrator is slowly starting to develop her own tastes, and that she was doing so even before Vivian’s death.

As a fake encyclopedia for a TV show that never existed, Little Blue Encyclopedia is, necessarily, experimental fiction, so it won’t appeal to some folks on that basis. But it’s a slim read (just under 200 pages), for one. And most of all, I was tremendously moved by how accurately the book depicts the process of mourning, as the narrator moves slowly through the morass of understanding just why Vivian meant so much to her. Throughout it all, the reader comes to understand the narrator’s affection right alongside her.

For as sappy as that might sound, Plante never ignores the ways in which Vivian sometimes took advantage of the narrator’s obvious adoration. And the narrator comes to realize some of this, too. That doesn’t make her miss Vivian any less, so much as it helps her grapple with just how easy transitioning makes it to attach yourself to some charismatic trans woman who seems to always know just what to do or say.

Even if you are not predisposed to read a book about two trans women who are obsessed with a TV show, there’s plenty to recommend in Little Blue Encyclopedia, especially about trans friendships (and, honestly, friendships in general). As I read it, I cried at one point in each and every chapter, thinking of all of the friends I’ve never had and all of the friends I love so deeply that I can never quite find a way to put that love into words.

Both transition and friendship are acts of faith, a trust exercise designed to test whether someone will catch you when you desperately need to fall. Little Blue Encyclopedia understands that overlap (and how trans women experience it) better than any book I’ve ever read. I cried at this book because I saw myself in it, yes. But not just me. I also saw my friends, and I came to better understand how much loving them, paradoxically, means missing them fiercely at the same time. And I cried for so many other women like me, alive and dead, whom I will never know. I hope they find the people they need. I hope we all do.

Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) is available from Metonymy Press and most major booksellers.