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Trans Women’s Archives in Fishy Fragments | Essay by Daze Jefferies

Listening to traditional knowledge keepers and engaging with the work of artists and scholars in Ktaqamkuk reveals how histories of these lands, waters, and atmospheres are inseparable from ecological relations with fishy beings. What is this place and who are we without fish? How do we know ourselves as island bodies beyond the lifegiving and worldmaking relationality to our oceanic kin? How do rural fishy island environments shape queer and trans archives? Informed by my positionality as a rural settler trans woman sex worker, I think that studying and playing with trans, non-binary, and two-spirit histories in Ktaqamkuk requires multiple methods that are able to make creative sense of gender diverse worlds. Specifically, working with what I call fishy fragments – an assemblage of archival remains, felt knowledges, and poetic imaginations – helps me privilege embodied and heartful modes of historical production that are entangled with oceanic ecologies. 

Much of my recent creative and scholarly inquiry has been influenced by the effects of transatlantic outmigration on trans women’s archives in Atlantic Canada. In my work, I understand outmigration as an ecological force and a complex process of unsettled worldmaking that is bound up in issues of geography, temporality, and hope. Engaging with fishy fragments – multiform ephemera, reels of microfilm, digital wastelands, and oral histories from community elders – has shown me how many young trans women have left this place searching for better futures. Believing in imagined communities beyond the colonial and sociocultural constraints that have historically shaped gender and sexual diversity at our Atlantic edge, choices made by these women to escape archival capture have rippled through time to inform the changing contemporaneity of our lives here and now.

As I share intimate engagements with fishy fragments that are always already queer, trans, slippery, and fluid, I am caught up in my thinking about the many bodies, stories, and relationalities that are lost to outmigration. Left to sort through disparate traces of trans life that are shared with me by out-of-the-way archival collections or word of mouth, I try to make peace with unfinished historical narratives about lives and worlds that are just in reach yet so far away from who and where I am in this time of troubled visibility. I think about the nameless young girl who wanted a better life for herself so she moved to Toronto and cut all ties to home at the birth of the new millennium; the confused and isolated teenager who fled from the Port au Port peninsula to New York City in the late 1970s searching for community; the queen from Labrador named Madonna who, in the mid-90s, became a star of showgirl performance in Vancouver; the many visiting TS sex workers who have flown back and forth over the past 20 years. Who am I to know these fragmented life histories? How do they shape my trans archival logics?

Grappling intimately with the ephemerality of queer and trans archives is a way of coming to know the textures and contours of gender and sexual diversity that make invisibility and spectrality all the more necessary for our own comfort, protection, and survival. Additionally, the work of making trans women’s archives visible is a slippery encounter with ethics of accountability and care. Because the labour of my creative and scholarly practice is interconnected with my survival, I realize how variations of absence and presence in trans, non-binary, and two-spirit archives are political matters that are worthy of sensitivity and love. In my thinking and creation, complex theorizations and poetic analyses become tools of honouring the lost and missing lives of my archival kin – women whose voices haunt our pastpresent as their fishy disappearances inform our historical longings.

Brought into being within the contact zone of embodiment, ephemerality, and ecology, the fishy fragments of trans women’s archives help me think more critically about issues of colonial violence and erasure, geographies of community and care, as well as our dreams for livable futures. Although I sometimes believe that this oceanic place is incapable of embracing and celebrating trans women’s worlds, fishy fragments remind me of the melancholic and hopeful conditions that have altered our modes of survival over the past 50 years. I don’t think for a second that these traces are all that’s left of our fluid genealogies, but I trust in their ability and agency to become known on their terms alone. Fishy fragments have revealed themselves to me in moments of crisis and despair. Helping me imagine trans archives, bodies, and temporalities in ways that are fundamentally entangled with oceanic worldmaking, they are reformed into ancestral lifelines when I need them the most.

Dreaming about invisibility, and keeping so many secrets of my own, I question how my schema of imagined belonging shapes the way I undertake this kind of research-creation. Loving and honouring the fishy fragments of trans women’s archives is a challenging response-ability to meet my ancestral kin within alternative contact zones of oceanic place and time. What might have started as a quest to piece together a chronological trans history of Atlantic Canada has slowly become an intense theoretical experiment that refuses the legitimacy of my desires to fully know our vibrant and violent historical worlds. Even if limitations of longing for trans histories trouble how I am able to access archival knowledges, I believe that the known unknowns of trans women’s lives are held in place by ecological structures that shape how we resist and survive together-apart through geographies and temporalities of struggle.

Feeling fishy as a failed but necessary method of survival as I allow trans women’s archives to unsettle my life, I choose to stay within the watery borderlands that buoy us as we hold out for better futures. In another world, I am missing and forgotten. I am oceanleaving. These spectral positions become counter-archives as queer and trans afterlives are ruptured by social and ecological collapse. Everything we know is returning to water. Little by little, our bodies are washed over as memorials and palimpsests drown around us. Caught between the rough currents of outmigration, violence, secrecy, and stealth, histories of trans women in Ktaqamkuk drift between impossible timelines to keep our stories safe. Somehow we survive through the traumatic loss – we do it over and unover as the waters rise. We do not abandon hope.


Daze Jefferies