Casey Plett is often overlooked as an Oregon writer. With her recent collection A Dream of a Woman, Plett continues to be at the leading edge of trans storytelling, but her collection is also one of the deepest and most insightful works to date crafting trans stories rooted in Portland and Oregon, bringing these overlooked experiences into our local canon.
Plett’s work has long centered trans women in their capaciousness and vulnerability—most notably in the award-winning 2018 novel Little Fish. Dream is no exception, delving deep into stories of love and family, sex and addiction, legacies, and how we reconcile trauma. But from the start Dream declares different intentions. It leads with “Hazel and Christopher,” a story of childhood best friends who meet again as adults after one of them transitions. Outside audiences often expect trans stories to focus narrowly on familiar tropes and scripts, and this story feints toward that, beginning like a fable of love and transition, and even tempting happily-ever-afters. But these characters have too much depth and complication for that, and when reversals come they’re as necessary as they are devastating. These stories look forward, not for clean resolutions or triumphs, but for the hope that we can hold that complication and carry it into lives we can actually live.
The backbone of Dream is “Obsolution,” a novella threaded through the broader collection. We follow a trans girl named Vera from her Oregon upbringing and out into the greater world, jumping through eras of her life. There is an artful conversation here, between other fully adult stories centering women in their 30s, and Vera’s path to meet them at that point of life and experience. Similar themes are viewed with both fresh and weary eyes.
“Obsolution” begins in an early-Obama-era Southeast Portland that will be achingly familiar to those who knew it, like an old late-night neighborhood crawl under vaulting trees and languid streetlights. It’s Hamms tallboys on punk house porches, stressed-out Reedies and drunken wanders through Lone Fir Cemetery. It’s the Ship Ahoy tavern where the bartender refuses to make OLCC fries (“Can I just order what’s on your menu?” “I’d rather you didn’t!”). It’s Portland as an adolescent city, a character in its own right beside Vera’s inchoate self-discovery, and it might still be the place where young people go to retire. But that torpor itself constricts Vera, who finds herself doubting whether the person she needs to be is possible here.
Originally from Manitoba and now based in Windsor, Ontario, Plett is of course a Canadian writer too. But her Oregon ties run deep, as she attended high school in Eugene before moving to Portland for college. Plett’s writing about place is recursive, with several communities and locales cycling through her work, always turned over with new eyes, new perspectives on the stories we seek in place and those we actually find, and what it means to come back. From her debut collection A Safe Girl to Love to Little Fish, Plett’s writing is rooted in Mennonite communities in rural Manitoba, and cities like Winnipeg, Toronto and New York. But Oregon remains an anchor.
Plett understands Oregon rain and Oregon mud, how good intentions become stifling in a place where homogeneity and limited possibilities are as oppressive as the winter clouds. Her deft use of environment as character comes clear once Vera leaves Oregon behind. Rain is key to Oregon’s self-mythology, and naturallyVera never used an umbrella growing up in those “daylong dribble rains,” in that liquid space and “long waves of clouds and water that block out color.” But in New York, it rains. Hard, scouring rain, the kind that you can’t melt into, the kind you have to fight. Some of the most remarkable moments in the collection involve character motion and change through elements, written in the dialect of Oregon itself.
Though Plett’s Portland in Dream is auric at times, these are not nostalgia stories. Stories like “Rose City, City of Roses” bypass the shine, and over time we see Vera unspooling what lay beneath those personal mythologies, learning what to hold and what to let go. In this, Dream is like C. R. Foster’s recent collection Shine of the Ever, another queer, lyric love letter to a turn-of-the-century Portland that has already faded. Both collections hold that city with deep affection but clear eyes, in its wonder and its ugliness, asking how we reconcile the truth of those experiences in ways that’s only legible with distance.
“It’s like they decided to put in a canyon,” Vera says years later on a visit back to Division Street, seeing how her old neighborhood has also transformed. Portland seems to be at a reckoning these days, between inequality and unrest and relentless gentrification. Portland has spent so long triangulating itself against outside narratives, from Portlandia to Trump Goons and lies about our city burning down. Above all, the present moment is about all those who are so often left out. It’s a time that demands a broader canon of place, and Casey Plett’s writing brings us closer.
Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett is in bookstores now.