Long before I called Casey Plett for the first time last month, to talk about her new book On Community, she had contributed to some of the communities closest to my heart. Those contributions were, at times, indirect: Many trans friends had mentioned how her books, A Dream of a Woman, Little Fish and A Safe Girl to Love made them feel seen. Others were more concrete: When my girlfriend posted online looking for advice about a book contract years ago, Plett – who she’d never met in person – offered to help.
Her connections to my circles were an example of just how wide-ranging and amorphous a community can be. Often, we share community with total strangers.
On Community – a book-length personal essay – delves into the different ways we imagine our communities and the people who form them. A community may be a small town you live in, friends you see every week or a collection of writers you know on the internet but never meet in person. It may be a megachurch, a local theatre troupe or an entire country. A community can be a site of belonging and support, but also one of betrayal and pain.
Arriving at a singular definition, Plett writes, is impossible. But the concept is still worth examining.
Here, Plett shares what she learned during her writing.
What made you want to write a book about community?
Part of it was the fact that the subject kind of terrifies me. It seemed so touchy and enormous. A couple of years ago my last book, A Dream of a Woman, came out. I had done this interview, in which I quoted a trans character in the book who speaks somewhat cynically about community. In the book they say something along the lines of, “The trans community means whatever I want it to mean at the moment I’m saying it.”
When I read back the interview a few months later I was like, “I don’t know if I’m actually that cynical. I don’t think I actually feel that way.” The idea of trying to unpack that felt enormous and terrifying and confusing but also important. It was also the summer of 2021, we’d all just been vaccinated and had all just experienced more loneliness and disconnection from community than we ever thought we would. So there was this question of, “What does it mean to be around each other?”
That cynical view of community is one I’ve encountered in real life. I’m queer and non-binary, and I believe in the power of queer and trans people coming together, for example. But sometimes even I have rolled my eyes when I’ve heard people invoking the idea of something like “the queer community,” as though it has any clear, monolithic definition. Why do you think people tend to feel this cynicism?
When it comes to queer and trans people specifically, I think we all come into community having not grown up with it, having hopes for it, then having those hopes dashed. People form communities and bring their hopes and their traumas – and when conflict happens, it feels particularly hurtful. Whenever I told someone I was writing a book about community they were like, “Oh, cool, that’s interesting,” if they were heterosexual. Everybody else was like, “Why are you doing that? Like, why would you do that to yourself?”
One of the ideas that comes up in your writing is that community is an incredibly hard term to define. Why do you think it’s so difficult to pin down the meaning of the word?
The term takes all the load we bear on it. I conceive of community now as something as consequential as family or friends of romantic love. Community is as huge, as loaded, as complicated as all those other things.
You write about the idea that a group doesn’t have to be morally pure to be a community. You give the examples of gated neighbourhoods that are designed to keep people out, or religious communities that cover up their members’ abuse. What are some of the darker things that community can foster?
Cruelty, groupthink, ignoring individual people and not wanting to listen to their problems or hear their side of things, the withdrawing of resources, violence, ostracism, shunning. There’s this idea that gets thrown around that if a group is not good, it’s not a community. But I do feel strongly that thinking that way should be avoided. Communities are always capable of toxicity, and we should always be on guard about that.
Even when a community is built with the intention to be good, it never loses its capacity to foster those negative things.
Is it possible to build a community that’s truly “for everyone?”
What’s good and safe for some isn’t always going to be what’s good and safe for others. Whenever I see a space or event that says “Everyone is welcome,” I just think, “No, that’s not possible.”
I had a conversation with my friend Marika Prokosh, who is very involved in disability activism, recently. Speaking in the context of disability justice, she pointed out that there’s something useful about asking, “Who am I actually doing it for?” That isn’t the most pleasant thing to think about because it often involves realizing the limits of your community or space or project. But it is clarifying and often a way forward.
In light of that, what good can come from communities doing the work required to examine their own faults?
I think it can help to avoid some of those darker aspects. I quote Morgan M. Page in the book saying, “Pay attention when people invite you to turn off your compassion. It happens all the time. But compassion isn’t a finite resource.” That’s important to remember in the context of community.
What role can compassion play in nurturing a healthy community?
It allows us to take care of each other. There’s a difference between emotional energy and compassion. One is finite, one is not. I think the way to guard against those darker aspects of community while also attempting to divine some morally correct path in life and keeping one’s dignity … is by maintaining compassion.
Sometimes a community is a physical place, like a town or a province or a country. And it may include people who are at odds with each other, or don’t feel particularly united.
How can we move past those divisions and try to build better connections to one another?
Openness. In some ways, that question is unanswerable in anything shorter than a tome, but to the extent it is, I think the answer lies in openness. You can maintain your boundaries and your dignity while maintaining openness. It’s hard but I really do believe that with all my heart.