a conversation between Drew Gregory and Abeni Jones
Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) has been universally praised since it was first published in 2019. I feel like every few months I saw someone raving about it on Twitter, causing me to bump it up my to-read list. Well, I finally read it, and loved it, and Abeni happened to have recently read it, and loved it, and we both had a lot of feelings and decided to talk them out!
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) is part encyclopedia for a fictional one-season TV show called Little Blue, and part tribute to the queer trans woman narrator’s dead friend who was one of its biggest fans. It’s an experimental novel about the art we love, the people we love, and the art the people we love love. It’s not very spoilable, so if you haven’t read it yet feel free to let us convince you to check it out.
Drew Gregory: It’s been over a week since I finished and I’m still having feelings.
Abeni Jones: Ooooh. Let’s talk about our feelings!
Drew: So around this time last year I decided that half the books I read were going to be written by trans women. Every time I read a (good) book by a trans woman it filled something in me I didn’t realize I was missing and I wanted more.
I think there’s an interiority in literature, especially fiction, that isn’t possible even in film and television. Even in life sometimes.
Abeni: Whoa. I need something like that. This is the first book I think I’ve ever read by a trans woman? Well, first fiction book I think. I was going to say novel, but it’s not really a novel, is it? I don’t know how to classify it.
But I agree — it scratched an itch I didn’t know was itchy. I’m really struggling to read Detransition, Baby because it is like, too … too much? I don’t know what the word is. I feel so much shame and embarrassment and fear. It’s too intimate or something. It makes me wonder if I’ve never really connected with other characters in the same way before, even if I see almost nothing of myself in Reese. But I don’t see too much of myself in the protagonist of this book either, but this book still also hit me very deeply.
Drew: Yes!! That’s exactly it. It feels really revealing. I think part of it is I’ve spent my whole life connecting to literary characters on every level except my transness. And so to connect on that level feels really overwhelming even if I don’t have much else in common with the character. Though in Little Blue I feel like I did…
Abeni: I think I asked you before if you’ve ever been in unrequited love with a friend. I think you said yes?
Drew: That’s pretty much all I did for years. lololol
I don’t even really watch shows with trans characters. I didn’t watch Euphoria or Pose because I think it would be like … too hard to deal with? Like, I’m afraid of getting too heartbroken? Even though I’ve never had similar experiences.
I’ve never been in unrequited love with a friend. This book was heartbreaking, still, though.
Drew: I don’t think you’re alone in feeling that way. When I think of media I associate with a certain subset of trans women culture it’s not Euphoria and Pose… it’s anime and Twin Peaks.
Which is why the fictional show of the book is so interesting to me. There’s more transness and queerness in Little Blue than on say Twin Peaks but not much. I was interested in the way Viv latched onto it, because it’s something I sometimes struggle to understand with other trans women in real life. I personally gravitate more toward work that is explicitly queer and trans even if it can be painful.
Abeni: I think that if Little Blue existed I’d have been obsessed with it. I was initially heartbroken to find out that it doesn’t exist!
Drew: Do you have this kind of relationship to any TV show or have you?
Abeni: No, actually! I tend to be very obsessed with something for a short period of time and then move onto the next thing. I kind of envy people who have like, a thing that they care so deeply about, long-term, like Vivian does with this show. To the degree that it almost defines her. The protagonist has this exact experience, I think, which makes me think I’m more like her than I thought. “It seems like it would be comforting to have a particular fixation,” she says, ” something that shrinks the world into one little thing you can focus on through the telescope of your obsession.”
I’ve always wished I could have a thing. I am into skateboarding, but also guitar, but also block printing, but also video games, but also sudoku, but also rock climbing, but also writing, but also pop music …
And I’m not that good or that into or knowledgeable about any of them. I felt like the protagonist was trying to force herself to inhabit Vivian’s world in some way, and got really close, and maybe the whole project was an attempt to do so, but I don’t think she really was able to. By the end I think she kind of realized that she had to go her own way to some degree and shake off the depression and allow herself to like, be herself. And sometimes I’ll get really into something, or desire to, but when it doesn’t take, I feel incomplete. But I know that I can’t force it? That maybe I’ll find that thing someday, or maybe I won’t. And it’s OK either way.
You know, tbh that kinda sums up how I feel about love too lol
Drew: Yes! I think the whole Little Blue project is an act of letting go for the protagonist. I also think it’s interesting throughout the book, as she’s talking to other people who knew Viv, she learns about all these other things Viv was into. She watched Little Blue with Viv so it became how she defined her, but it’s not how everyone defined her. Vivian’s sister says, “V couldn’t convince me to finish watching it. Totally confusing and totally batshit.” But obviously she wasn’t less close with Vivian just because she didn’t watch this one TV show. One of the most painful aspects of the book is watching the protagonist realize she only knew Viv through her own lens. She didn’t know Viv in full and never will — and maybe that it’s impossible to ever know the full of anyone.
Abeni: Oof yes.
I haven’t been in love with a friend but I have had a friend die. By her own hand — and I was relieved when it was clear that Viv didn’t die that way. But it being over — no more chances to learn more about the person, to fully understand them, to see them beyond Britpop playlists and TV obsessions is heartbreaking.
What’s also true, though, like you say, is even when people are alive you can’t know all of them. And it’s not your right to, anyway. People deserve to share the parts of themselves that they desire to with others on a conditional basis. I think this is hard for a lot of people to accept. At least, it’s hard for me to accept.
There’s a moment where the protagonist is going through Viv’s things, and finds some sex toys. “Whoa, I thought, Viv owned quite a few butt plugs.” I don’t know if I know too much about my best friends’ sex lives beyond the little snippets I used to get after dates (two of them are now married, so no more explicit details). I think that’s a great metaphor for how everyone we are close to has private lives we aren’t aware of. But Viv’s were even butt plugs with tails! It felt asynchronous, but then again that’s from the protagonist’s perspective, and maybe that’s the point.
Drew: It makes the show such a perfect counterpart to Vivian. They’re both elusive no matter how much the protagonist tries to categorize.
Did you have a Vivian? Like a first trans woman friend when you were coming out?
Abeni: No, and that was something I wanted to ask you about, too. I don’t have close trans women friends now even. I’ve known a few — I mean, there have been so many women who’ve been essential to my progression and survival and etc. — but no close friends. And I wonder if I’d have been like the protagonist if I did — like, get obsessed?
I don’t think so, though. I think there’s a lot to unpack in my relationship with “the community.”
Drew: I think that’s really common. I feel like I have connected with a lot of trans women over not connecting with a lot of trans women. Haha
Abeni: Yeah, and I also think that’s kind of by design, like how oppression works? It’s isolating? But I feel like our protagonist — just the fact of her queerness and Viv’s straightness creates a wedge, I feel like. I feel like I could never really relate to straight women. And most of the trans women I’ve ever known were straight.
Did you have a Vivian?
Drew: My first trans friend was a trans man. And in the first trans women spaces I was in I felt a little bit alienated or uncertain. I didn’t feel like I was really connecting with that many people. But that’s how I’d feel going into any space! Transness doesn’t automatically connect people on anything except transness.
However, when I moved to LA in 2019 I did make a close trans woman friend. She was straight and I thought about her a lot while reading this book. I’m not ready to publicly go into the whole experience but it was a pretty toxic friendship that I made excuses for because I was so excited to have a trans woman close friend. And I did really like her and connected with her on a lot of different levels. But I was excusing things I shouldn’t have in the way she treated me. Eventually I found out something she’d done to someone else and it helped me be more honest with myself about that. Anyway, I was projecting all that onto Vivian, but I do think within the text of the book it’s clear that Vivian and the protagonist’s relationship is not perfect and her idolization of Vivian is somewhat misguided.
Abeni: I also got flashes of Viv’s toxicity. It came through even through the protagonist’s obviously rose-colored glasses.
Drew: Yeah it’s especially clear in the section where the protagonist talks` about her friends who bullied her in middle school. “I never asked Viv if she gossiped about me because I never wanted to confirm that she secretly snickered about me with her other, cooler friends,” she goes on to say. “If I didn’t ask her, maybe it wasn’t true.” I really related to that sort of knowing denial.
Abeni: It makes me think about how much we frequently are expected to settle for? Like, we can’t expect to be loved fully and openly, or to not be harassed or stared at when we move through the world, or whatever. And maybe we’re starving for friends even, so we settle for people who don’t fully like, respect us?
I don’t think I do that anymore, but I definitely did in college. That was before I was trans though. So maybe that was just a me thing. Or maybe it was before I knew I was trans, but I don’t actually know where I land with that.
Drew: No no I definitely think that’s a trans thing. Whether it’s directly connected to transness or a feeling before we come out. It’s funny because I’m so adamant about not giving into that when it comes to dating. I have very high standards and will not settle because I’m trans. But with this friend… I definitely did settle. And even at the time would tell other friends that I made excuses because she was trans. I was aware I was hurting myself and kept doing it, because having that connection felt worth it. Now I know it wasn’t.
The thing is as trans people we have a lot of trauma. And it impacts us. I’m not saying that excuses any behavior, but it is something I’m conscious of. I don’t think being forgiving is bad. Even if I think it’s important to find a balance between forgiveness and being honest about personal needs and wants.
Abeni: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Like is it so bad to give trans people a little extra grace? But where do you draw the line?
What do you think was like, the big idea, or takeaway, or thesis of this book, if there was any for you? We’ve definitely hit on a bunch of the themes, but it got me thinking … what was she trying to say? Not that every book has to say something.
I was happy just to get in another trans woman’s head — a weird, queer, kinda depressed one at that — and to see a bit of myself reflected.
Drew: I said that the show and Vivian were both unknowable, but another way of framing that is to say they’re complicated. “Enigmatic, flawed, and well loved,” the protagonist says of both. To me, that’s the main point. How complicated everyone and everything is even the people and art we love most. And finding comfort in that complexity rather than distress.
Abeni: I love that. You know, I was just looking over our convo, and I started by saying “I didn’t see much of myself in the protagonist,” but actually … I see a lot of myself in the protagonist. And I think in the same way that others are unknowable, so are we ourselves.
An extension I’d make, I think, is that kind of like Little Blue, the unknowability and complexity of a thing or person is often either inextricably linked to or a foundational feature of its beauty? Near the end, the protagonist finds some photos of Viv’s like, sex bruises, in a folder on her laptop titled “Beautiful Pain.” Then she adds “Turn pain into beauty” to her to-do list. And I think she is struggling to try and control pain and grief and that’s kind of the point of the encyclopedia, to like, take charge of the narrative and understand what’s going on and what the purpose of the pain is, and turn it into something constructive? And that there’s beauty in the attempt, however futile?
It makes me feel warm inside. Because I frequently find myself asking myself what the fuck my problem is lol. Or what is my deal? Or why am I so how I am? And how do I still not know myself after 30 years of consciousness? And is there a point to any of this? But that’s just like, being a person or whatever. And maybe to loop back around to why these books hit so deeply, is because so many of the trans characters I’ve seen in mainstream media just don’t have that complexity and nuance and difficult characterization. But real people aren’t like, archetypes. They don’t serve a plot purpose or whatever, they just exist in all their messy, unknowable beauty. Like us.
Drew: I think here and in Detransition Baby and in a lot of the trans women lit I read, even when I don’t relate to the specifics I still relate to the feelings.
Abeni: Yes! Because you can see them as real people, and you can empathize with them, and feel their feelings, and etc. even if you haven’t had similar experiences.
Drew: Reading good fiction by trans women has made me realize so many of my “why am I like this??” things are connected to my transness. That I’m not actually that unique, that alone. That so many of us deal with similar problems and have similar feelings even if the specifics of our lives vary. It’s really comforting.
Abeni: Ooof that’s hitting me hard Drew! Because I’ve almost taken comfort in my uniqueness, like it’s a shield. Like the idea that nobody else could possibly understand my experiences is actually comforting because then I don’t have to attempt to explain myself to anyone. Most of the times I’ve tried I’ve failed. But it doesn’t mean I’m actually some singular being.
But I love that you’re seeing the flip side of it, too, and of course, that was my experience with this book — that I saw a lot of myself in the protagonist and that was comforting as well. And of course … I’m complex so I can do both at the same time lol.
Drew: Oh yeah when I say it’s comforting I mean it’s comforting in the omg this is so painful and beautiful and I love art and I love being trans and I want to die and aghhafsdghslakjnci sort of way.
I love this book so much and am so thrilled to read this conversation!!
Big hearts to both of you
Plante’s use of music (playlist here! https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3NfgVtWXt5SfN9bKgKnW4b) is also really fun, and interesting for how it sells the fiction of Little Blues. Where you have all this disussion of real songs and artists pressing up against similar breakdowns of this imagined show. And the Karaoke scene with Viv’s sister is lovely.
I loved this book, thank you so much for bringing it to my attention! It is delightful, engaging, and feels so true and melancholy and bittersweet.
i like your thoughts appreciated please keep it up with good work