A Poetry Collection on LGBTQI History that Throws Today’s Young Queer People Under the Bus: A Review of ACQUIRED COMMUNITY by Jane Byers

acquired communityWell, readers, I’m sorry to say it’s time for another review of a book I didn’t like! I pride myself on writing fair but honest reviews, and it’s especially important to me that readers know they can trust my reviews (in so far as it’s only my personal experience and opinion of the book). So here we go with the honesty and fairness. Acquired Community is a poetry collection by Jane Byers, a writer who lives in Nelson, BC. I was excited when I got this book in the mail, because, damn, look at that cover! This is definitely some great book design and cover art by Suzo Hickey. I was also really keen on the topic of queer history: the back cover describes Acquired Community as “a collection of narrative poems about North American lesbian and gay history, mostly post-World War II, and a series of first person poems that act as a touchstone to compare the narrator’s coming out experience within the larger context of the gay liberation movement.” It’s so important to record and be able to hear the stories of queer elders and especially for eras like the AIDS crisis to not be forgotten. It’s something I’m really interested in as a thirty-something queer person.

Unfortunately I don’t think this book delivers what it says it does, and it certainly didn’t present what it did in a way that felt lyrically compelling. What type of poetry you enjoy is certainly a very personal thing, and even though the language in this book didn’t do much of anything for me, it might for you! (In fact, it’s not surprising I didn’t enjoy this book, as one of the endorsements is by Arleen Paré, whose book of poetry I viscerally disliked). My experience with the writing was mostly that it didn’t feel like poetry; you can break prose up into lines, but that doesn’t make it poetry. Where are the powerful images? Where is the play with language? The blurb does specify that these are narrative poems. But what justifies making these narrative poems? What is the effect? Why bother with this form? For me, there wasn’t an effect. There were many poems that I felt would have been stronger writing if they had simply been written as prose stories. For example, in a poem set at a high school health class:

One student asks, “What do lesbians wear to the mall?”

It was the pinnacle of lesbian-fashion-meets-mainstream,

When Birkenstocks were “in.”

I chuckle but dare not say “I wouldn’t know.”

I joke, “Birkenstocks” and they all look down,

some tuck their feet beneath their chair.

Somewhere in here is a funny and interesting story about being asked to speak on being gay to young people and feeling like you have to be an authority. But this poem isn’t really getting at it. It’s a frustrating experience to be reading poetry and feel like you’re reading minimalist prose broken into lines. It’s not giving me what I want from prose or poetry.

So I didn’t jive with the writing, but more troublesome for me were a few of the political implications in the book. I mean, any book declaring it’s about “gay and lesbian” history as if that’s an inclusive term is getting on my nerves before I even open the book. I’m not sure if it’s worse or better that Acquired Community actually features historical bi, trans, and intersex people in the poems but then erases them on the back cover. To be fair, there is also an LGBT on the back cover blurb, but a) “gay and lesbian” does not equal LGBT and using them interchangeably perpetuates the idea that it is and b) nowhere is there any mention of intersex people. For a book about the history of our movements, it’s pretty bad that the promotional material is erasing the historical people who were actually at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots and the first Pride parade (trans women of colour like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major and bisexual activist Brenda Howard). I get that in some contexts, like for SEO or if you’re choosing pre-defined categories like from Library of Congress, you have to compromise and choose language that isn’t ideal. But this is just in the narrative description of the book!

More upsetting for me was some of the content that depicted the only young queer person as an apolitical person who doesn’t know anything about queer history and doesn’t want to. (This is in the long poem “Keen,” which is imagined as a conversation between a young gay university student and Michael Lynch, a Canadian AIDS activist, writer, and scholar). I LOVE the concept for the poem. But damn, the portrayal of the young person really rubbed me the wrong way. It felt ageist, particularly because he’s the only young queer person featured in the collection.

Like, I know a shit ton of queer and trans young(er) people doing amazing political work. What about Morgan M Page’s podcast One from the Vaults, which is about trans history? What about the queer Black founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi? Why are these kind of people absent from the book? Of course there are LGBTQ2IA people today who don’t know much about the history of our movements and who aren’t actively involved in activism. But this isn’t all of us. If you don’t know about young people engaging in amazing queer activism today, do some research! Writing about past queer activism and implying that today’s LGBTQ2IA people don’t know their queer history and don’t care about activism is insulting, especially the Black Lives Matter activists who are working in the name of folks like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson to work against racism and transphobia in our communities and to bring back Pride parades to their roots as protests as well as celebrations. Wouldn’t it have been great if the conversation in “Keen” had been between Michael Lynch and one of today’s activists? What a missed opportunity.

Well that’s it for a fair and honest review! If anyone else has read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Bonus! Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Canadian, Queer, Poetry

2Spirit / Trans / Intersex Struggle and Resistance: A Review of Alec Butler’s ROUGH PARADISE

rough paradiseIt’s not every day that you read a book that reminds you of one of the most important and powerful queer books ever written: Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. But this is exactly what I was thinking while I was reading Rough Paradise by playwright, filmmaker, fiction writer, and 2spirit/trans/intersex activist Alec Butler. Both novels share a raw, no-holds-barred look at trans/gender, class, and violence that have a strong sense of urgency to bear witness and share queer/trans history and stories, especially the ones of struggle, resistance, and resilience.

Rough Paradise is also the first book about an intersex character by an intersex author that I’ve ever read and had the pleasure to review on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. I’m excited to share this book with you all! Rough Paradise follows a teenager named Terry Tomey, an intersex young person whose arrival at puberty has brought his condition front and centre. At the start of the narrative, which is set in the 60s/70s (I can’t remember as it was a while ago that I finished this book!), he is struggling to communicate his gender and sexual identities to his parents, being abused at the hands of medical professionals, and having suicidal thoughts. His meeting Darla, a fellow queer and mixed-race Indigenous person, comes just at the right time. But Darla is dealing with demons of her own, and with the odds so stacked against them, it’s uncertain if their love will be enough to save them. Can they escape the abuse of colonization, intersex/homo/transphobia, sexism, rape, and more? As young people, who can they trust to be their allies?

Rough Paradise is a novella at a mere 124 pages (in fact it’s published by Quattro Fiction, which focuses on novellas), but it manages to play around with many different genre conventions in its short space. The main character Terry is a teen, and the story is told from his first-person perspective. Butler has captured that certain kind of naïve and exuberant teenage voice that I’ve seen only rarely in YA fiction. It doesn’t feel like a story told by an older Terry, looking back on his teenage years; it feels very rooted in those moments, and in that youthful, unknowing point of view. The novella feels almost like a teen’s diary, circling back on the same themes, using the same emphatic language just like a teen would. So on those grounds Rough Paradise feels very YA.

But a little less than halfway through, Rough Paradise totally threw me when it took a decidedly erotic turn. Of course there’s plenty of sex in queer and non-queer YA, but not described longingly and at length with such explicit detail. This is not the fade-to-black approach that is the norm in YA. The passages detailing Terry and Darla’s lovemaking can only be described as erotica, making the work as a whole look like a piece of erotic fiction. Erotic YA fiction, is that a thing? If not, Butler’s invented it here. And sex is really an essential part of the narrative, serving a healing and restorative function in contrast to the appalling amount of violence and assault of all kinds that permeate the rest of the book. The sex is also inextricable from Terry and Darla’s love:

We lie down on the quilted comforter made by my grandmother whom I have never met. We hold each other in the full moonlight that lights up the night sky, our hearts beating together. It is so perfect, this moment. It’s like the rest of our fucked-up word faded away. I know that our grandmothers, both hers and mine, are close to us right now, protecting us.

I had read many love poems at the Library, and many times they said that this is what love does; it fucks you up. But you really don’t get it from reading the poems, until you fall in love yourself. Does it fuck everybody up this good? This bad?

Throughout Rough Paradise also had a kind of fairy tale, timeless feel despite the fact that it’s quite grounded in material realities. The opening line is, after all, very reminiscent of a fairy tale: “I live on a beautiful, magical Island Paradise of beaches, mountains, rivers, and pristine lakes.” The book continues to capitalize “Island,” as well as other place names and occupations, like the “Library,” “Doctor,” the “Overpass,” the “Mainland,” suggesting that not only are these physical, specific locations and people, but also stand-ins for the standard/generic things they represent. The “Doctor” is an individual performing horrific anti-intersex acts, but also an undeniable representative of the medical institution. Every capitalization gives whatever Butler is writing about a mythic sensibility.

alec butler

Alec Butler / photo via alecbutler.com

Mixed in with the fairy tale nature of Rough Paradise is the fact that the setting has an unmistakably Maritime feel, even if it is never specifically named. The disconnect of life on the isolated island, the looming feel of the mainland and the freedom it represents, the working class reliance on resource extraction industries, the colonization of Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) people, all of these details reminded me of the east coast. I’m always on the lookout for queer Canadian books set on the east coast, since for whatever reason there don’t seem to be very many of them. So if you’ve been searching too, Rough Paradise is one of the few!

The ending to this short yet powerful tale is the epitome of that idea that every ending is really just another beginning. Terry drives off on his second-hand motorcycle, leaving the Island behind for the “Big Smoke” on the mainland. The narrative, which has told the story in present tense up until this point, shifts to the future:

I am going to ride down, up, and around the asphalt traffic cloverleaf on a real motorcycle. Say goodbye to the Overpass, and Steel Plant-dominated skyline, and the prison created where the sky meets the water… Hopefully, for good. I’m going to make it across the Causeway, off the Island and onto the Mainland on my two-wheeled freedom, on my way to the bright, pretty, pink neon lights of the Big Smoke. Where my life awaits. Where I might find Darla. Where I might fall in love, again.

If you’re interested in hearing more about Butler’s personal story and how it intersects with the material in the novella, his website is a wealth of information and super interesting.

Bonus! Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Canadian, Erotica, Fiction, Indigenous, Queer, Trans, Trans Masculine | Tagged

The Eight 2017 Lammy Winners I’m Most Excited about, Including Three Canadians!

The 29th Annual Lambda Awards ceremony happened last night, which means we have a whole new list of acclaimed LGBTQ books to add to your TBR. These are the winners I’m most excited about, some that I’ve read and reviewed already, and others that I’m looking forward to reading soon. Three of them are even Canadian!

girl mans upGirl Mans Up by M-E Girard

I’m so pleased this Canadian debut novel won in the LGBT Children’s/YA category. I read and reviewed it soon after it came out, and thought it was an important intervention in the sub-genre of queer coming of age YA books. Girl Mans Up is about Penelope, aka Pen, who already knows she’s a lesbian. In particular, she’s a butch/masculine/genderqueer lesbian. What she works toward over the course of the book is demanding recognition and respect from everyone else around her for who she is, cutting out people who won’t, and making new connections with people who will. Along the way she develops a healthy romantic and sexual relationship with a girl named Blake. Pen is a refreshingly real character who makes a lot of mistakes and is not always likable. The characterization of Pen is rich and dynamic, especially as Girard investigates Pen emulating the toxic masculinity of her guy friends as she tries to figure out how to express her gender without oppressing others. Girl Mans Up is a subtle, authentic book that resists flashy portrayals of instant change brought on by dramatic events.

the devourers indra dasThe Devourers by Indra Das

This winner in the LGBT SF/F/Horror category is two tales hidden within one. The Devourers starts on a cool evening in Kolkata, India where a stranger tells a historian named Alok a story of shape-shifters he insists is true. The skeptical historian is then presented with the rest of the narrative, written on scrolls made with human skin. Thus begins an international and century-sweeping saga that investigates gender, sexuality, race, and what it means to be human—and non-human. A half-human, half-shapeshifter who is the product of rape is forced to make a new path while in the frame narrative Alok’s interest in the stranger evolves into something sinister. According to N.K. Jemisin, who reviewed it in her New York Times SF/F column: what readers will really savour in this book is Das’s language, which manages to make cannibalism both disturbing and sensuous.

mouth to mouthMouth to Mouth by Abigail Child

I’m a bit confused about which category this won in, since on Twitter yesterday it was announced as the co-winner of the bisexual fiction award, but on the Lambda website today it lists it as the winner of the bisexual poetry award. Anyway, I’m thrilled that more bi+ books are getting attention at the Lammies. Here’s the publisher’s description: “Mouth to Mouth spans the past two decades focusing on a series of romantic and sexual relationships with both women and men. From inside the sexual whirlwind of these relations and after, Child’s attention to language as embodied material highlights how mediated and multiple layers of desire can be just as thrilling and physical on the page. Even as this divergent collection of writing ranges through these relationships, it also ranges through poetic methodologies, using computers as a writerly id and organizing principle, employing constraints and aleatory processes, and recalling the body’s desires in a constant process of titillation, problematization, and ongoing translation.”

reacquainted with life kokumoReacquainted with Life by KOKUMO

This debut collection took home the award in trans poetry. The publisher, the amazing Topside Press, describes the book in this irresistible way: “KOKUMO’s poetry, is what happens when survivors spit sperm and other bodily excretions in the face of those who abuse them. KOKUMO’s poetry, is what happens when Aunt Jemima becomes Rambo. KOKUMO’s poetry, is what happens when the piece of shit you stepped in, corporealizes then knocks you the fuck out. And no! Resilience, has never sounded sexier.” In Kai Cheng Thom’s Autostraddle review, she calls this book “an artistic coup that seizes the queer literary and political establishment by the shoulders and demands a reckoning.” Thom also writes: “With her electric voice, searing gaze and unrelenting dedication to speaking truth, KOKUMO blasts through the bullshit rhetoric and tokenism that too-often engulf queer and trans communities in order to expose the raw struggle to survive at their heart.” I was sold yesterday.

small-beauty_cover_rgbSmall Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang

Small Beauty, the winner for trans fiction, is a quiet, meditative novel about family and identity that more than lives up to its name. It’s also by a Canadian author! The main character is Mei, a young queer trans woman who’s dealing with the mysterious death of her cousin and all of the details of arriving in a small town where she’s inherited his house. While she’s there, she uncovers some secrets—like that she isn’t the only queer in the family—and spends a lot of time reflecting on being trans and having white and Chinese ancestry. wilson-yang does an incredible job portraying Mei’s life as both the extraordinary and unremarkable thing that it is, whether it’s dealing with transmisogyny (there’s one scene of transphobic physical assault and some transmisogynist so-called feminist rhetoric), using Mandarin words, or talking about Chinese food. It makes for a beautifully introspective book, which I review here.

here comes the sunHere Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Here Comes the Sun has been on my (audiobook) TBR for a while, and its win in the lesbian fiction section is definitely going to bump it up on my list. Here’s the publisher blurb: “Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis-Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas. At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves must confront long-hidden scars.”

the remedy zena sharmanThe Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care edited by Zena Sharman

This is another Canadian winter, this one in the LGBT anthology category. I read this collection late last year, and was surprised by how much I liked it, since the topic has never been a special interest of mine. The Remedy is quite a diverse book. While the majority of the pieces are essays, some leaning to the personal side and others more academic, there is also poetry, a graphic story, lists, and profiles of queer and trans health initiatives. While trans-related stuff gets probably the most attention, quite a variety of the LGBTQ2IA+ spectrum is represented, with a few knock-out essays about asexuality, intersexuality, and bisexuality. I was also happy to see that nearly half of the contributors are people of colour, including more than one Indigenous person! In short, there’s something in here for everyone. Check out my full review here.

marrow islandMarrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

Clearly I am failing as a bisexual book blogger since I had never heard of this winner in the bisexual fiction category until it was announced yesterday. It’s supposed to be like Station Eleven but better and it sounds great: “Twenty years ago Lucie Bowen left Marrow Island; along with her mother, she fled the aftermath of an earthquake that compromised the local refinery, killing her father and ravaging the island’s environment. Now, Lucie’s childhood friend Kate is living within a mysterious group called Marrow Colony—a community that claims to be ‘ministering to the Earth.’ There have been remarkable changes to the land at the colony’s homestead. Lucie’s experience as a journalist tells her there’s more to the Colony—and their charismatic leader– than they want her to know, and that the astonishing success of their environmental remediation has come at great cost to the Colonists themselves. As she uncovers their secrets and methods, will Lucie endanger more than their mission? What price will she pay for the truth?” I’m still not sure where the bisexuality comes in though.

Which Lammy winners are you excited about?

Bonus! Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Asian, Bisexual, Black, Butch, Canadian, Caribbean, Fiction, Lesbian, list, News, Non-Canadian, Poetry, Queer, Science Fiction, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Young Adult | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Interview with a Queer Reader: Daniel Shank Cruz Talks Bisexual Books, Queer Mennonite Writers, Tips for Finding New Queer Books and Authors, and More!

IMG_0343June’s queer reader is Daniel Shank Cruz! He grew up in New York City and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a Mennonite family. It was because of his Mennonite background that he first got into reading Canadian literature through reading Mennonite writers, many of whom (e.g., Miriam Toews, Di Brandt, Rudy Wiebe) are Canadian. He teaches English at a college in upstate New York, where his primary research area is Mennonite literature, especially queer Mennonite literature. He identifies as bisexual, but tends to prefer the term queer for himself because he worries about how the prefix “bi” implies that there are only two genders. He also likes the openness of queer and how it encompasses his kinky identity as well. He is obsessed with books (especially queer ones and Mennonite ones, but he also reads a fair amount of poetry, sports history, and biography/memoir). He writes an occasional blog post mostly cataloguing his book purchases. Keep reading to hear Daniel talk about trying to find bisexual books, reading queer Mennonite writers, cool tips on how to find new queer books and authors, and more!

What was the first LGBTQ2IA+ book(s) you remember reading? How did you end up reading it (i.e., were you searching for queer books or did you just happen across it?)

ColorPurple

The first LGBTQ2IA+ book I recall reading was Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple in a Literature and Film class my first semester of university. I loved the book, but at the time did not yet realize I was queer, so it had less personal resonance for me than it does now. Frank O’Hara is another queer writer who I happened to read during university, though not specifically because he was queer. It wasn’t until I read Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia in graduate school, though, that it hit me that I could start being more intentional about seeking out queer writing. Kureishi’s book included the first depiction of male bisexuality that I had ever encountered, which was a powerful experience, and I began wondering if there were more such narratives out there.

What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?

Choosing only five favorites is difficult! I’m going to cheat by giving you a list of honorable mentions and noting that my answer to question four would also be on the list 🙂 These are in no particular order:

safe girl to loveA Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett. This collection of short stories about the trans community (including some trans Mennonites!) gets better every time I read it. I love its unapologetic portrayals of BDSM, and how so many of its characters are book lovers, and how important place is in the stories, which take place across Canada and the U.S. Also, one of the stories, “Portland, Oregon,” is the best piece of literature about a cat ever.

The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany. This novel was the first book I ever read that had a homeless person as a main character. I find Delany’s insistence on depicting those on the margins of society incredibly moving and necessary. I don’t think a book has ever made me think more than this one does. I love all of Delany’s work (he writes fiction, literary theory, and memoir), and The Mad Man is my favorite of his books because it does a good job of mixing a compelling narrative with queer theoretical principles; it is literature as theory.

lost boiLost Boi by Sassafras Lowrey (which is, incidentally, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver). It’s hard to put into words how amazing this novel, which is a retelling of Peter Pan, is. It is the best fictional portrayal of BDSM I’ve ever read because it treats BDSM as a part of everyday life rather than as something exotic or taboo. It is also heartbreaking; I’m not sure if I’ve ever read another book that turned me on and made me cry at the same time.

Nevada by Imogen Binnie. This is the great trans road trip novel. The first half of it takes place in New York City and is one of the most beautiful portrayals of that space that I have encountered, especially in its depictions of essential elements of twenty-something NYC food culture: amazing pizza, delicious bagels, and kick-ass brunches that you can’t really afford but need for your soul anyway. I also love that the main character works at my favorite bookstore, The Strand (even though she kind of hates it).

rubyfruit-jungleRubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. A feminist classic that always makes me laugh and which also does a good job of depicting sex work unapologetically (something that A Safe Girl to Love does, too). It also takes place mostly in NYC, something that I just realized is shared in common by all five of these books.

Other books that were very close to making the list include Jan Guenther Braun’s Somewhere Else, Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?

boneyardWhen I first read Stephen Beachy’s novel boneyard [sic], which is about an Amish teenager who’s into bondage, I could only read it in small doses because it felt so close to my own self that it was too uncanny for my body to handle: it literally (and yes, I mean literally, not figuratively) made me feel like I was having a heart attack, or at least what I imagine a heart attack would feel like. It felt like it was written specifically for me, and I value it because it shows me that I am not alone as a queer Mennonite (the Amish are similar to Mennonites; they broke off from the Mennonites in 1693). I also love the book because it employs a crazy amount of metafiction (fiction about fiction), which is one of my favorite literary tropes.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?

give it to meThere are still way too few depictions of bisexuality in fiction. Even though I’ve been actively seeking out queer literature for the past decade I can only name a handful of texts that do a good job with bi characters (aside from The Color Purple and Buddha of Suburbia, Jessica Penner’s Shaken in the Water, Christina Penner’s [a Canadian] Widows of Hamilton House, and Ana Castillo’s Give It To Me are the ones that I can think of off the top of my head), so I would like to see more bi fiction in general, and especially portrayals of bisexuals who are in settled relationships and thus have to deal with the question of what to do with their attraction to the genders that they are not with. This latter narrative doesn’t exist yet in fiction as far as I know. I would be happy to be corrected on this point if I am wrong!

How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?

nevadaAs I mention above, it’s difficult finding books with bisexual characters, but in terms of finding good queer literature in general I feel that I am able to do so enough to keep me satisfied. I often find new queer books/authors via word of mouth, whether that is from friends and colleagues or through the bibliographies of the pieces of literary criticism that I read. I am lucky enough to have several friends who are interested in queer literature as writers and/or scholars, and we often pass new finds on to one another. I also find that anthologies of queer writing are helpful: I discovered Nevada after I read a short story by Binnie in an anthology of trans fiction (The Collection, published by Topside Press in 2012). Whenever I go to a conference, my first priority is to go to any queer panels that might be offered, and these also lead to new discoveries as well. I read Lost Boi after hearing Lowrey speak at a conference earlier this year. I also try to follow publishers that publish a lot of queer work (e.g., Duke University Press and the aforementioned Topside Press) on social media so I can keep track of their newest releases. This strategy also works with some individual authors.

Do you know other LGBTQ2IA+ readers or participate in any LGBTQ2IA+ reading communities (in person or on the Internet)? What’s it like? Why or why not?

As noted above I do have an informal community of other queer readers which I really appreciate. They have had a huge effect on my thinking and on my scholarship. I’m not involved in any formal reading groups, in part because I am a major introvert. However, one of the best classes I ever took was an LGBT Literature course in grad school because everyone was personally invested in the subject, and based on that experience I think it would be enjoyable to be involved in a queer reading group if one existed in my community (which to my knowledge it does not, a lack that does not bother me enough to start one myself, haha). There is a weekly poetry open mic at a local coffeehouse which often includes a number of queer pieces, so there is definitely a queer literary community lurking around when I feel the need for some social interaction.

Thanks for sharing with us Daniel! I have added a few books from this interview to my TBR, as I’m sure lots of other people will be doing as well! I’m looking forward to the day when we have books about bisexuals in settled relationships figuring out how to negotiate their multiple attractions too.

Posted in BDSM, Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Fiction, Interview with a Queer Reader, latina, Lesbian, Non-Canadian, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine | 1 Comment

A Gay Coming of Age Story that Avoids Tidy Resolutions and Black and White Morals: A Review of CINNAMON TOAST AND THE END OF THE WORLD by Janet E. Cameron

cinnamon-toast-end-of-worldJanet E. Cameron’s debut novel is not the whimsical or light-hearted story you might expect from the cheery title and cover. In fact, it’s a coming of age / coming out YA story that follows the general formula of these narratives, which are often heavy and intense, quite faithfully. Queer YA novelist Malinda Lo describes this formula as: “character struggles with homosexual desire in a homophobic world; character falls in tormented, transformative love; character is unceremoniously outed. Boom. In the fallout, things usually get a lot worse before they get better.” The narrative of Cinnamon Toast does fall into this pattern. But its insistence on avoiding moralizing, its lack of clear-cut resolutions, and its complex, sometimes unlikable protagonist make it a rewarding and unique coming of age queer YA.

The protagonist in Cinnamon Toast is Stephen Schulevitz, a teenager living in Riverside, Nova Scotia (population 1,816) in 1987. (This setting, by the way, is lovingly and in a brutally honest and authentic way brought to life. It’s clear that Cameron knows rural Nova Scotia very well.) The opening section of the novel situates Stephen in the throes of an epiphany: he’s in love with his best friend Mark. It’s a regular Saturday night at two in the morning, and he and Mark are doing what they always do, drinking warm beer and watching late-night infomercials. They’re in grade 12, and about to graduate in 3 months. Stephen’s first person perspective at first situates this moment of recognizing he loves Mark as a brand-new realization.

But after this short segment describing the revelation of love—akin to a prologue—Stephen immediately complicates the idea. In the first section proper of the novel, called “The past is right behind you,” Stephen explains, while diving into this childhood, that the development of his feelings for Mark and his growing awareness of his gay sexuality are in fact not new at all. He describes being bullied for not being traditionally masculine, the early dynamics of his friendship with Mark, having a crush on a male teacher, and even overhearing his mom say “‘I’m just so terrified he’ll grow up to be a homosexual and it’ll be all my fault’” when he was thirteen (p. 77). Stephen also details harming himself on numerous occasions in order to try to train himself out of having gay thoughts and desires.

The second section, “After the world ended,” moves the narrative back to the present and focuses on what Malinda Lo would categorize as Stephen’s “tormented, transformative love” and struggle with his desire. Now that Stephen has acknowledged his feelings to himself, his relationship with Mark is irrevocably changed. Every interaction with his best friend is now fraught, and Stephen no longer feels easy or comfortable around him. But Stephen also takes a new step: he comes out to his friend Lana, who accepts and supports him. It’s in this section that Stephen first feels a real impetus to tell Mark how he feels; while he doesn’t follow through on the decision for quite some time, this inevitable scene and the unknown outcome are the momentum that keeps the novel moving forward until its conclusion.

Although a positive experience in and of itself, Stephen coming out to Lana propels the turn towards trauma in the next section, which traces the action of a teenage house party. This is the part of the novel where, in Lo’s words, Stephen “is unceremoniously outed.” And it turns out to be Lana’s visiting long-distance boyfriend Adam, who is also gay and in the closet, who outs Stephen. Leading up to Adam’s decision to out both of them “for their own good” (p. 218) is Stephen’s first (boy) kiss (and more) with Adam, who knows Stephen is gay because Lana told him. The kiss is a heartbreaking and complex scene, where Stephen is simultaneously elated at his first gay sexual experience, terrified they are going to be caught, and feeling awful about how what he is doing is going to deeply hurt Lana, the only friend he has left.

Cameron plays with readers’ expectations of the genre in the outing scene. We know from Stephen’s descriptions of Riverside that, like in many small towns, difference of any kind is immediately and cruelly condemned. We know that homophobia—and other forms of oppression, like sexism—are rampant. (A quick but impactful scene where a girl at the party has just been sexually assaulted is a prominent reminder). But in the end, the scene where Stephen is publicly outed is not actually traumatic. The group of peers left at the party when Adam makes the announcement are mostly girls, who are ambivalent but then supportive, following the lead of one girl who decides to “toast” Stephen by pouring beer over his head and hugging him. The violent bullying at school at the hands of boys doesn’t come until slightly later, an unexpected, horrific incident that is all the more terrible for knowing how much worse it could have been.

As the summer before Stephen leaves for university in Halifax draws to a close, the narrative with Mark has still not been resolved. Mark has dropped out of high school, so Stephen is unsure if the school rumours have made their way to his friend. Although it seems unlikely they haven’t, Mark’s behaviour hasn’t changed. The climax of the narrative is the epitome of what Lo calls “things usually get a lot worse.” On his last night in Riverside at another house party, Stephen recklessly drinks to excess and reveals his feelings for Mark. The result is nothing short of repeated, violent homophobic assault that leaves Stephen with a broken nose, arm, and ribs.

Many queer YA coming out narratives construe leaving the small town for the more gay-friendly city as the “happy ending.” But Cameron does not end the novel after the violent encounter with Mark nor when Stephen leaves Riverside to start university. In the last section, “A new world,” readers have a glimpse of Stephen’s life after high school, and it is neither the horror he has left in Riverside nor the perfect, gay-positive paradise that readers might have imagined this new stage of Stephen’s life to be. The novel finally ends with a last (verbal) encounter with Mark after Stephen goes home for Christmas and Stephen’s return to Halifax, a potential boyfriend waiting in the wings.

The ending of the narrative with Mark is indicative of Cameron’s impulse to resist tidy resolutions or the instinct to perform easy, moralizing gestures. What Mark does to Stephen is horrific; however, Mark is never portrayed as a monster. Cameron is careful to show how heteronormative masculinity has also damaged Mark while he has also benefited. In many ways it has trapped Mark in Riverside, without a high school diploma and a pregnant girlfriend, while Stephen escapes to the city and higher education. But though Cameron allows Mark to sincerely ask Stephen’s forgiveness, she also allows Stephen to refuse to forgive him. Stephen leaves Riverside, returns to the city to a male friend who has professed his love for Stephen. Stephen is unsure what his feelings are. That is all the resolution that Cameron offers us.

The multiple subplots of the novel are left similarly open-ended. Stephen’s complicated relationship with Lana, who has unrequited feelings for her friend Stephen like Stephen has for Mark, only gradually and partially moves back to a friendship, with the remnants of their one-time awkward sexual encounter still lingering. The other prominent subplot involving Stephen’s distant father Stanley, who abandoned his wife and son when Stephen was a child, is even less resolved: before Stephen gets to spill his true feelings or find out if his father loves him, Stanley tells him: “I think this conversation has run its course” (p. 279). None of the relationships are simple, and not one of the characters is either wholly “good” or “bad.”

Stephen himself is the epitome of this resistance to black and white characterization. He’s both a deeply sympathetic and deeply flawed character. Cameron rightly resists the impulse other straight authors might give in to of making a gay character flawless in order to make him likable and thus prove that the homophobia directed at him is wrong. Of course the homophobia Stephen suffers is wrong; but he’s also a human being and a teenage boy who hurts many of the people closest to him in the novel, especially Lana and his mother. Cameron shows him desperately trying to fit in with his straight peers, even when it means saying sexist things and throwing women under the bus. She shows him swearing and lashing out at his overbearing mother, with her tendency to smother him because he is the only family she has. Cameron also shows Stephen’s fierce loyalty, vulnerability, intelligence, and love of reading.

It is because of its dedication to grey areas and the intricacies of a young gay character that Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World manages to rise above the coming out genre in which it places itself. Like many of the best queer YA coming of age books, Stephen comes of age not by figuring everything out and resolving all the complications of being a gay person in this world. Instead, Stephen moves into the adult sphere with only one fundamental lesson about the world’s inherent complexity. There are no easy answers; it is sometimes impossible to label people or things as good or bad. This is a gift to young readers far more valuable than an illusion of simple morality or easy resolutions could ever be.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Gay, Halifax, Queer, Rural, Young Adult

June Patreon update: Help Me Make New Goals and Shape the Direction of Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian in the Future

Happy … summer? I hope it’s feeling sufficiently summery for you wherever you are and whatever that means for you! This month’s Patreon update—click on that link if you don’t know what I’m talking about—is fairly quiet. Good news is that I’ve made it back up to $75 a month, which was my third goal! (The last two months I had gone past $75 and then back down again). I haven’t decided what next goal I should set and what amount I should choose, so if you have any ideas for what you’d like to see on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, let me know! I am wondering if anyone is interested in specific kinds of posts, like opinion pieces, personal book-related essays, interviews with authors or people who work in publishing, or anything thing else LGBTQ2IA+ book-related! What kind of content do you want more or less of? Is there something I’m not doing at all that you would like? I made a very quick Google forms survey (4 questions that shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to fill out) and would LOVE to hear from you. Even if you only read my site occasionally, please feel free to fill out the survey.

Another lucky reader got a free queer book this month! Here are the options they had to choose from:

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In case you missed any of the posts, this month I published two exciting book lists: 5 Two-Spirit and Queer Indigenous Writers to Read Right Now and 5 New and Upcoming Queer and Trans Canadian Books which include many amazing books and authors you should definitely read. I also reviewed trans and two-spirted poet Gwen Benaway’s poetry collection Passage. I also wrote a piece profiling the three finalists for this year’s Dayne Ogilvie prize for emerging LGBT Canadian writers: Kai Cheng Thom, Eva Crocker, and Ali Blythe.

And as always I want to individually thank all of the people who’ve signed up to be patrons. You lovely humans are: Danika, Leigh, Anna Marie, Kim, Jane, Jakelene, Emmet, Madeline, Heather, Carla, Naz, Laurita, Kirsten, Ashleah, Jason, Jillian, Anton, Shelagh, Priscila, Allison, Ang, James, Seed, Rachael, Julie, Katherine, Rachel, and Samuel! If any of you new (or old) folks are interested in being a part of the Interview with a Queer Reader series, write me at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com.

Posted in Patreon

Happy Anniversary, Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian!: Some Highlights from the Last 5 Years

Did you know it was exactly five years ago that I started this blog? I can’t believe it, and probably wouldn’t have noticed except for a handy WordPress notification that popped up last week when I logged in and informed me. Thanks WordPress bot!

This blog has evolved so much from when I decided to start something in place of the PhD thesis I had planned to write about queer Canadian women writers before I decided to drop out of my English Lit PhD program. (Honestly, some of the best decisions in my life have been quitting things: I recommend it. I also quit taking Math 12 and switched to Literature 12 in my last year of high school, and look how well that turned out.)

Over the years I’ve gradually included different kinds of content, in addition to the reviews, which have been constant. I do a ton of themed book lists now, which I didn’t really do at the beginning, not realizing how much people love them and how fun they are to write. To date, some of my most popular posts are lists:  5 Incredible Two-Spirit and Queer Indigenous Writers to Read Right Now, in fact, is my most popular post of all time. Other super popular lists that I’m proud of are: 6 Canadian Trans Women Writers You Should Know, Parts 1 and 2; 4 Queer Black Canadian Women Writers You Should Be Reading for Black History Month; The Best Bisexual Women’s Literature; and Canadian Queer Women’s Classics: A Top Ten Must-Read List.

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SFF  author Nalo Hopkinson, who appears on more than one of my most popular lists and who is one of my favourite authors!

 

I also originally started my Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian queer book advice column on this blog; now it has a home at Autostraddle, which I couldn’t be happier about! It is so much fun hear from queer readers about what kind of books they’re looking for. I’ve also learnt a lot about different types of books and identities through writing that column too, especially about books featuring asexual characters, YA with genderqueer/non-binary teens, and fat-positive LGBT books.

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I’ve also done the occasional opinion / personal essay kind of piece. My most popular and personal favourite of these is definitely Why I Don’t Want to Be a Queer Book Detective Anymore (Although I Do Still Want to Be Harriet the Spy), which stemmed from my frustration at how hard it can be to find queer books and to figure out if any given book has LGBTQ content. I wrote about the weird little tricks I’ve developed in this queer book detective work, and also wondered about why it’s like this. My favourite part of the essay is:

I don’t want the priority reading audience for our books to be non-queers.  I don’t want them to be palatable to straight and cisgendered people.  I don’t want publishers to have their cake and eat it too: slyly de-queer the book to appeal to cis/straight audiences and assume LGBTQ folks will figure it out and buy the book too…I understand that literature is a very powerful activist tool and that non-queers reading about queers is a great thing.  I can see that by not proclaiming their queer content on the cover that some books are going to gain readership they might not otherwise and that this reading experience might be transformative for said non-queer people and could positively impact their interactions with queers in the future.  But that’s not as important to me as a queer person who needs queer literature finding and reading it.

(I also wrote a follow-up article to the responses I got from this post, which were many and sometimes kind of strange in that they weren’t really responding to my original points.)

The most recent new series that I’ve started is Interview with a Queer Reader, which has been a ton of fun. I ask people what their favourite queer books are, what the first queer books they read were, how they find queer books, and more! Like Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, it’s great to get to talk to individual readers. I also love getting to pass the reins on to someone else for a bit to give recommendations to my readers.

cereus blooms at nightReviews never get as many hits as lists posts, but they are kind of the bread and butter of this site. The three reviews that have got the most hits on my blog overall are of Lee Maracle’s Ravensong, Kathleen Winters’s Annabel, and Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night. (“Spoiler”: Annabel is terrible and Ravensong and Cereus Blooms at Night are great). I’m pretty sure this is because all three of those novels are taught in English classes (specifically, Can Lit classes) regularly. I’m guessing that a lot of the hits I get are from confused and/or desperate undergrads who need ideas on what to write about in their essays.

Some of my personal favourite reviews, though, have never got a ton of traffic. But I’d love to share them with you here so if you missed any of these when they were originally published (some of them are many years old!) you can check them out now. It probably goes without saying that some of these are also my favourite books:

passage gwen benawayPassage by Gwen Benaway: I love how I got to weave in Gwen’s powerful essay about cultural appropriation into this review of her beautiful poetry collection.

I’ve Got a Time Bomb by Sybil Lamb: Somehow I managed to review this book which initially felt unreviewable to me

(You) Set Me on Fire by Mariko Tamaki: I particularly enjoy how the voice of this novel affected me so much that you can hear it in my writing style in the review.

with a rough tongueCanary by Nancy Jo Cullen: I got to weave in stuff about rural Canadian life and everyday Canadian vernacular, which I usually don’t get to do in queer book reviews!

With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn edited by Amber Dawn and Trish Kelly: “Can I just start this review by saying that With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn … is by far THE BEST EROTICA I HAVE EVER READ.”

Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson: This is the first book that made me fall in love with Nalo Hopkinson.

kynshipHood by Emma Donoghue: I try to convince readers this book about a closeted lesbian in 90s Ireland losing her partner in a car crash is not the depressing book that it seems.

Kynship by Daniel Heath Justice: “The queer, Indigenous, feminist fantasy novel you never knew you wanted so badly.”

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall: I was IN LOVE WITH this book when I read it (it was my first Zoe Whittall) and I think it shows. But this review also has a picture of my cat who died in it, so it’s sad for me to read too.

Mystics-of-Mile-End-webcoverThe Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel: I try to capture the beautiful intelligence—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—of this-hard-to-believe-it’s-a-debut novel set in Montreal.

Big Big Sky by Kristyn Dunnion: This is a YA dystopian novel that truly stands out from the pack, and it was great fun to get to describe all the ways it does that.

Next Year For Sure by Zoey Peterson: This was one of those reviews that turned into half personal essay musing about the fascinating ways issues (love, relationships) in the novel resonated for me in real life.

All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor: “If someone had told me, hey, this new book All Inclusive is a critical look at all-inclusive resorts, bisexuality, swinging and polyamory, spirituality, death, and terrorism, I probably would have said, are you kidding?”

Here’s to another five years of the blog! And if you want and are able to, help me continue to keep creating content and to get better and better by signing up to support me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! You can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in ask your friendly neighbourhood lesbrarian, Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Dionne Brand, Emma Donoghue, Erotica, Fantasy, Farzana Doctor, femme, Fiction, Indigenous, Lesbian, list, Nalo Hopkinson, Patreon, Poetry, Queer, Rural, Science Fiction, Shani Mootoo, Short Stories, Trans, Trans Feminine, Young Adult | Tagged | 1 Comment