“Queer and Desperate Poetry,” “Never … An Uncomplicated Story”: A Review of Amber Dawn’s Exquisite New Book of Poetry, MY ART IS KILLING ME

Amber Dawn’s latest and second collection of poetry, My Art is Killing Me and Other Poems, is an exquisite, hard-hitting book. At times devastating, My Art is Killing Me is not without its moments of humour and light. Amber Dawn also shows off her formal talent and skills with an ample amount of free verse experimentation done through creative spacing and repetition, and using non-poem formats such as spells and business emails.

As the aptly dark and funny title suggests, this book is a chronicle of Amber Dawn’s experiences with the burdens and joys of writing from the perspective of a woman, queer person, survivor, and sex worker. Being an artist in the public realm, particularly in the nefarious realm of social media and the digital world, is an intricate and complicated role.

The book begins with this eerie snapshot:

My mama: What? You’re crying.

You wanna cry, eh? I’ll give you something to cry about.

The rest of my life: You’re writing confessional poetry, is that right?

Well, lah-de-dah, girl. I’ll give you something to write about.

Thus she tracks from childhood this self-fulfilling prophecy of self-expression stemming out of pain and pain as a base from which self-expression emerges. The rest of the collection grapples with this never-ending circle.

It asks: what is the relationship between pain, trauma, and creativity? Is reliving trauma the price one pays for being an artist? How can that be? What role do readers and audiences play in asking or even forcing artists to perform and convince them of their trauma? How can readers and audiences take and take and take from artists without acknowledging what it might cost them to give? Without even acknowledging they are finite and flawed human beings? Amber Dawn asks: “Who do I confide to about pain when pain is my praxis / and best performance?”

In the opening poem, “The Stopped Clock,” Amber Dawn writes about finding out she had been accepted into UBC’s creative writing program while in Alabama, backstage at a strip club wearing a “white tiger striped bodysuit.” Her stiletto gets caught on the wooden stage; she falls onto her knees. She asks:

And besides, what’s another bruise?

What’s a bruise? What’s a bruise? What’s a blue moon bruise

to do but pull young blood to and fro like the tide? What’s a bruise

but a testament to the sharp art of surrendering to time and place?

If the (literal, metaphorical) bruises are what you write about, then do you have to continue to bruise yourself in order to keep writing? What if all your readers expect you to do is write about the bruises? Are bruises the cost of “surrendering to time and place,” being present in the moment as an artist?

In another poem, “How Hard Feels,” Amber Dawn chillingly repeats the line “everywhere there is a man” as she chronicles dealing with abusers in positions of power in the literary community: authors, professors, mentors. The line inserts itself into the poem, interrupting and lurking in the background, right aligned on the page and often repeated over and over like an intrusive thought, a whisper in the back of your mind. But Amber Dawn also pushes back against the ubiquity of men with a solid block of text:

Everywhere there is a    woman  queer or fury or holding her beloved body

however she can  everywhere there is a woman working her masked craft

invisible labour  ungraspable praxis  her voice shivering out a frequency

only other women can hear her unsung opera her nixed lexicon   censored

origin stories  publicly mocked creation myths  her hands  quick quick quick

undetectable  a slight a secret she never has to reveal   other women already know

the shape of a veiled monument   already follow her pen and ink abstracts …

beharassedseeharassment  beharassedseeharassment …

everywhere there is a woman   shaping and reshaping and reshaping the deep

lower than thermocline  that sunless room of her own  underwater spinning

bull kelp and eel grass into words that only other women will ever look for

Women continue their artistic labours and creative output, made by women for women to “hear” and “look for.” This is despite being surrounded by men’s harassment, men’s self-interested so-called guidance and mentorship, men’s fervent denials of privilege, and men’s manipulation. Unnervingly, at the end the poem goes back to the refrain of “everywhere there is a man,” repeating it three times as the boldness of the text’s black colour fades to grey.

Immediately following “How Hard Feels” is the first of the collection’s spells: “Stregheria Instructional #1.” I inferred from the poem that Stregheria had something to do with witches, and of course I was familiar with the classic children’s picture book Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola. When I looked up stregheria, I was fascinated to find it’s an archaic Italian word for witchcraft, among other uses. I love Amber Dawn’s use of the mystical and witchy to draw villainized women’s power up against the fear so powerfully evoked in the previous poem. The spells are angry — “tell / the waning moon  fuck it / fuck this fuck me fuck him fuck him / fuck her fuck pain fuck poor decisions” — as well as playful and funny: “I’m making this shit up as I go.”

Amber Dawn; photo by Sarah Race

In addition to poetry as spell, Amber Dawn also cleverly writes poetry as academic email and business letter. These “found and redacted from my inbox” poems are painful(ly funny). They immediately gave me that feeling of well, if I can’t laugh about this I might cry, so let’s try a dark joke, maybe laugh and cry at the same time. Beginning with “Dear IncorrectName,” the poem goes on to expertly mimic and parody academic word choice and tone:

Please allow me to introduce myself as the OfficialTitle at the College_University_GovernmentFundedInstitution. At my InstitutionalPlaceofEmployment we are Studying_OtheringtheLivingHellOutof Prostitution in Canada_FeministViews on Prostitution_ProstitutionExploitationTrafficking_ and other topics related to your “hellish existence.”

Your book How Poetry Saved My Life is on my students’ critical book review list alongside TextsbyFeministsWhoHateYou and UnethicalResearchers. … I do not have funds for guest speakers, but I would be happy to offer a $50 honorarium from my own SalarythatIsFourTimesWhatyouEarnedLastYear

The deep disrespect, ignorance, and hate masked under the formality of academic, institutional, and bureaucratic discourse are astounding. Amber Dawn harnesses this discourse to use it against itself and the powers it serves.

I don’t want to focus only on the burdens of the artist, though. “Fountainhead” chronicles some joy as Amber Dawn travels to Italy in search of her queer ancestry and past. She

… spent a humble lifetime looking for

others who too labour to live inside their skin. My kink is to loudly love those

who’ve been told to keep quiet. Erotic boom. I want outlaster love. Against-

all-odds love. I, finally, want myself, and I want slick fluency in this desire

While in Napoli I wrongly read a museum label to say that Parthenope

wished to marry Circe the sorceress. I read queer determination, and imagine

how that ancestral beach might feel if my mistranslation was an origin story.

Imagine if the grounds we walk were built from queer love?

What if indeed. Although I am too wimpy I think to ever actually get a tattoo, I have a running list in my head of lines by women poets that I might get tattooed on my body. “My kink is to loudly love those / who’ve been told to keep quiet” is now one on of them.

Amber Dawn is certainly building her poetry from the queer femme ground up. Some of my favourite lines in the book were about reimaging and complicating what poetry is. Poetry as queer femme:

I wouldn’t mind if poetry mimicked racing tipsy down the subway stairs

in platform heels to barely catch the last train of the night.

Poetry as a mirror: “A poem is always a mirror / that we must hold up before us”

Amber Dawn also interrogates narrative itself, of the linear storyline made for straight white men’s stories. She asks:

But you (literally you) are reading queer and desperate poetry

so may I assume you too have never been afforded

an uncomplicated story?”

Part of that linear narrative made for people not like Amber Dawn, or me, or queers, or sex workers, or survivors, is the idea of closure. To neatly close a story off with a bow doesn’t fit. Closure, in fact, is a hungry, oppressive force. The beautifully alliterative line, “Closure / is like the conspicuous consumption / of real life,” circles back to the question of who is consuming what or whom when we talk about art.

This also connects to “Hollywood Ending,” a poem where Amber Dawn tears apart the hypocrisy of Oscar award-winning and nominated actresses who have played sex workers—read: consuming them — who then sign a letter demanding Amnesty International halt a proposed policy to decriminalize sex work. Their reasoning? It supposedly allows men to consume women.

Like all the best poetry, My Art Is Killing Me is a book to reread and savour. And as I said, maybe a collection from which to pick out some new words to tattoo on your body.

Posted in Amber Dawn, Canadian, femme, Poetry, Queer, Sex Work, Vancouver | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Longterm Lesbian Relationships, Fraught Friendships, Interrogation of Mainstream White Discourse on Queer Identity, and More!: A Review of Shani Mootoo’s Novel POLAR VORTEX

Polar Vortex is multi-talented writer and artist Shani Mootoo’s latest book, her first in six years. I didn’t think I had a fixed idea of what I was expecting in this novel, but this strange, dark, and thought provoking novel was not it. In the past Mootoo has written literary fiction in rich, sensual language that takes on usually heavy topics of queer and trans identity, sexual abuse, domestic violence, Mootoo’s home country of Trinidad (or fictionalized versions of it), and South Asian Caribbean culture and identity, sometimes as immigrants to Canada and sometimes not. But I read Polar Vortex with a feeling of uneasy anticipation that you might associate with a psychological thriller—which I guess in many ways is what this novel is.

The fascinating main character in Polar Vortex is Priya. She is in her late 50s and lives with her partner Alex in a small Ontario town, which they moved to fairly recently from Toronto. Priya is a South Asian Caribbean immigrant to Canada and is the only woman of colour in her and Alex’s lesbian friend group. Out of the blue one day in early winter, Priya gets a message on Twitter from an old university friend Prakash, with whom she had a complicated and fraught relationship.

Complicated and fraught is an understatement. Priya and Prakash, whose South Asian family came to Canada as refugees from Uganda in the 1970s, met in university and bonded over being two of the only South Asian people they knew. They had in common their South Asian heritage and specifically the fact that they both came from diasporas at times not considered truly Indian because they were born and grew up outside Asia. Other than that, however, the two don’t have much in common.

This type of friendship from young adulthood is certainly familiar to me. When you look back on it, whether or not you are still friends with the person, you know that if the two of you were to meet now, the friendship would never have bloomed. Priya and Prakash’s relationship is partially this, certainly, but there are lot of other nefarious layers. Let’s get into it.

Priya is slowly discovering her lesbian sexuality as she attends university. But it’s a difficult time in the 1980s to come out, even or perhaps especially to yourself. She is afraid to tell Prakash about her queerness. In fact, she maintains an early mutual friendship with him and her first girlfriend while they remain in the closet.

As their friendship continues, Priya is forced to come out in the aftermath and heartbreak of her first relationship. Prakash is superficially and practically supportive. But his behaviour to her continues to be intense and attentive in a way that shows he has romantic and sexual feelings for Priya. Priya, for her part, sometimes takes advantage of Prakash because she is lonely, looking for validation, and needs help launching her career as an artist. She also has no one else to turn to for emotional support — particularly after breakups — as a new immigrant to Canada without community or family support (even from a distance, as her family does not know she is queer).

The history of Priya and Prakash’s past relationship is revealed slowly throughout the first two sections of the novel, interspersed with the present where Priya’s impulsive decision to invite Prakash to come visit is bringing up longstanding insecurities and issues in Priya and Alex’s relationship.

Throughout these early sections of the book, Alex is portrayed as very jealous and suspicious about Prakash — through Priya’s point of view. At some point, and I’m not sure exactly when or exactly why, it occurred to me to ask how reliable of a narrator Priya was.

Slowly, part I (“The Bed”) and part II (“Cold”) inch towards Prakash’s arrival as it dives deep into Priya’s thoughts and experiences, present, long ago, and recent past. The format circles back, re-examines thoughts and asks questions that have already come up, in the way that the occupied and anxious mind does. Mootoo brilliantly builds the tension despite the fact that on the surface, not much of anything is happening, except Priya rising from bed, finding breakfast, and interacting in an everyday way with her partner.

There is more to Prakash and Priya’s relationship than meets the eye; the same is true of Priya and Alex. One recurring detail that at first seems innocuous and later looms large and metaphorically is the distinct smell of decay in their kitchen, which they attribute to a mouse having died inside the wall. The mouse is not the only thing dying in their house. Priya later confirms this when their mutual friend Skye comes over for a quick morning visit. Priya thinks “It is just that around Skye I often feel a great warmth, as if I am an actual person, and this lays bare the coolness that has come between Alex and me.”

Just when the tension has built to a breaking point, and you are anxious for this visit with Prakash to hurry up and get started, a new section of the novel begins. Titled “The Visitor,” it pivots and offers the story from a different first person point of view: Alex’s. A lot that is new, of course, is revealed in this different perspective, but one thing that is the same as Priya’s is Alex’s sense that their relationship is crumbling. Alex remarks while first meeting Prakash: “To an onlooker there would, I’m sure, have been no hint, in the swift and almost ordinary gesture for two people living together [Priya kissing her cheek], of the distress that hung like a heavy curtain between us.”  She later wonders

Whatever had happened to us? Perhaps it is more common than not that things break down in slow motion rather than with a single grand gesture, and you can get so inured by the slow demise, even as it happens and happens and happens right before your eyes, that you don’t notice the approach of the point of no return.

In the novel’s fourth and final section — again from Priya’s perspective — what we know about Priya and Prakash and Priya and Alex are turned upside down. I won’t say any more except you should get this book and experience it for yourself! It is a breathtaking and anxiety-inducing finale.

polar-vortex-shani-mootoo

Shani Mootoo; image via akimbo.ca

One of the first words I used to describe Polar Vortex was thought provoking. I do not use that word glibly. In a similar way to another recent read, The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya (review here), Polar Vortex left me silently contemplating the themes and the complex ways in which they were handled for extended periods of time when I wasn’t even in the middle of a reading session.

I was particularly haunted by this passage from Priya’s perspective early in the novel:

When the large world around you does not support your kind of love, it can be hard to nurture and sustain a relationship. It’s hard to stay in when things get rough and tough; you don’t see your problems as common ones that any relationship might come up against. You can’t talk to your mother and get advice or comfort or stories from her. You see your failure as a result of who or what you are, of you as a person—you begin to chew on leathery words like normal, and when that happens, when you question your own worth, it’s impossible to embrace someone else who reflects to you what you are. Well, at least that’s how it was for me in my younger days. It’s different now, but I do wonder how different it really is. Anyway, it’s not something you can talk to other people ‘like yourself’ about because even if they have privately experienced the same set of feelings, they want the actions you take, the things you say, to reflect a kind of politics that says that, no matter what, we’re out and we’re proud and we’re happy, very happy, to be the way we are, and you’d better get used to us.

Although I have different racial, cultural, sexual, and generational identities and gender presentation than Priya, this passage struck a deep chord with me. Priya is talking about a politics of queer identity and palatability that wants to erase the complexity of queer experiences and flatten our humanity. A politics that doesn’t actually allow us to experience and process all our feelings or to flourish as it claims we already are.

I have also thought a lot about how Priya is scared and ashamed to admit she’s been affected by heteronormativity and sexism. She remembers that she has sometimes played the “Indian woman” to Prakash’s Indian man in their friendship. She has internalized the idea that she must always be — and must always have been — strong, confident, and sure about her lesbian identity. It’s clear Priya has been deeply affected and scarred by that white cis gay men-centric paradigm of gayness, the “sure” narrative, that well meaning advice “You’ll know if you’re gay!” that makes people think they can’t be if they’re not 100% certain or if their past behaviour or feelings don’t fit the model.

The pressures of sexism and heterosexism are such heavy burdens, especially in the decades in which Priya is growing into her identities. I wish I could tell her that seeking attention and validation from men is a societal habit that you are conditioned into, and that simply being a lesbian does not erase this oppressive conditioning. It’s not her fault! I wish I could point her to a community and support system of queer people of colour and of queer South Asian people, which she seemed to lack even in Toronto. (I think, happily, this is not true 40 years later in Toronto for younger generations of QTPOC and queer and trans South Asian people specifically). Witnessing the triple effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia on queer women of colour like Priya is heartbreaking and important.

There is even a subtle presence of biphobia as Priya’s mind wanders back through her relationship with Prakash. Early on in Priya’s conflicted thoughts, I kept thinking: well what’s the big deal even if she was involved with Prakash, bisexuality exists! Her insistence and defensiveness with Alex when she is asking if Priya and Prakash were involved, as well as Alex’s suspiciousness, are great examples of how biphobia can be destructive even in a relationship where no one is bisexual!

Then there’s the character of Prakash. He, in many ways, is one of those so-called nice guys. He thinks, consciously or not, that being kind and supportive to Priya means he has earned her romantic and sexual attention. He, like many other men, is a man who thinks of all women, including masculine lesbians, as part of their women “on the market” (thanks feminist theorist Lucey Irigaray for this terminology!) who should be available at all times and who they have a right to as sexual objects.

Mootoo, however, doesn’t allow us to only think of Prakash this way. In Alex’s section, he tells both women a long story about the trauma of being expulsed from Uganda, the terror of his dad not coming home from work one day, and the deep shame and resentment that so many countries refused to offer South Asian Ugandans fleeing for their lives refuge. These memories and feelings are just coming back to him as he looks back on his experiences, them being triggered by the current Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. I found it impossible not to feel for him in those sections, as much as I loathed him in others.

Yet another theme beautifully and complexly investigated is the difficulties of intimacy and communication in relationships. The deep dive into longterm queer relationships really reminded me of Jane Eaton Hamilton’s book Weekend, which I also loved (and reviewed here). If you enjoy the verisimilitude of reading about very authentic lesbian relationship processing, you should read both those books. Again like Vivek Shraya’s The Subtweet, the characters in Polar Vortex have a frustrating lack of open honest communication that feels completely believable given the complex characterization of their insecurities and personalities. I realized about halfway through the book that Mootoo’s use of the present tense shows readers that there may not be a future—at least for Priya and Alex’s relationship—after Prakash’s visit from which to tell the tale.

I hope if you’ve made it to the end of this review that you are excited to go read Polar Vortex and explore Mootoo’s fascinating characters and careful and nuanced exploration of all these issues. But if this was a TL;DR for you: Mootoo’s latest novel is a masterful study of longterm lesbian relationships; the intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia for queer women of colour; South Asian immigrant and refugee experiences in Canada; and mainstream white discourse about queer sexuality and identity. Polar Vortex is, quite simply, a stunning book.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Shani Mootoo, South Asian, Toronto | 2 Comments

Gorgeous, Fiery Words and Skillful, Clever Use of Poetic Devices Equal Only to Each Other: A Review of Jillian Christmas’s Poetry Collection THE GOSPEL OF BREAKING

There were many times when I gasped out loud and just sat in awe as I was reading Jillian Christmas’s debut poetry collection The Gospel of Breaking. The poems are alternately sad, sexy, funny, and angry; I found myself—very willingly—riding a vicarious emotional roller coaster alongside them. Christmas’s inventive lyricism and images went straight to my heart and gut, sometimes at the same time. Such as lines like: “how will we know it [what is a body] / unless we go searching through the roughness of being alive.”

Many of the poems very much feel like their roots are in slam poetry with a careful attention to sound. They also shine on the page. Like when Christmas plays with the alliteration of the “d” sound when she writes: “What dainty fish-hooks have danced in your heart / dangling the whimpering shadow of which sadness.”  In “Monday Morning Made Delicious,” Christmas employs delightfully unexpected mid stanza rhymes and near homonyms, telling us

I captured every teary smile like tonic for new worries

tomorrow will surely bring    perhaps that is a surly thing to say

perhaps this is distastefully fictitious    but day is beating down my door

tossing threats across my floor and calling you ‘delicious’

 

I am tired      this much is true   and sleep   she is a fair-weather friend

and black sky blusters into blue and my thoughts go on and on

without an end   and sun is rising like flare through a fog and everything

is quiet and everything is hard and you are lovely   and soon I will be too

 

and good morning   I made this for you

In addition to experimentation with image and sound, Christmas also plays with form on the page. In “Casting,” the structure of the poem is a never ending circle. Writing in two long stanzas, one aligned left and the other aligned right, Christmas constructs two poems within a poem that each begin and end with the first line of the other. Each stanza then continues to repeat the same lines as the other stanz, in reverse order. It’s one of those poems whose first reading experience is very different from subsequent ones, as you admire the craft of explicitly creating diverse meanings with the same lines by placing them in different contexts. WOW.

In the collection’s titular poem, “The Gospel of Breaking,” Christmas addresses being “birthed in a church too comfortable / with a God who would make closets into coffins.” But she doesn’t reject god; rather, she remakes her beliefs into a “religion of lost souls” where she can see god

in every busted lip

and back room hand-job

my god    who has been so quiet

this must be your work

as baffling as all of your

other mercies

In addition to reclaiming spirituality as a queer person, Christmas writes about the pain of living in a racist, sexist, homophobic world:

this world wants to scrape the bottom of me

wants to line its garbage cans

with the things that I call                           holy

Addressing what she might have time and energy for if she didn’t have to carry the burden of these oppressions every day, she mentions “poems about black joy” and “an herb garden / worthy of attention.” Instead, she guards against:

this world [that] tears strips clean off me

complains about the toughness of the meat

the wild flare of my nostrils

circles a crooked tooth in the photographs

asks why I look so mean

Two poems especially resonant for me were ones that dealt with themes of suicide and depression: “It’s Only a Good Ride If You Can Choose to Get Off (or: To People Who Would Call Robin Williams a Coward” and “In My Mind There is a Place Where We are Both Whole.” Depression, Christmas writes, “is the gift you never wanted that keeps on giving.” She asks

do you know what it is to think of the thing a hundred times before coffee

to make the bed anyway …

 

what do you know of rest

or the needing of it

 

what do I know

Jillian-Christmas-The-Gospel-of-Breaking

Jillian Christmas; image via roommagazine.com

One of my favourites was a gorgeous poetic take on the frequent meme “But have you tried.” Uh, everyone else can stop doing this now, Jillian Christmas has clearly won.

have you

wedded

yourself

to the edge

of a knife

braided

your names

together

like a promise

wrung your

sweet voice

until all of

the valleys

echo echo

hollow

have you

swam beneath

possibility

carried

the cross of

an ending

found

the bottom

of your own

seeking

drank the

false venom

of delight

climbed

back up

the drain

made your

way out

dripped in

the sacred

filthy as

all human

and alive

Among other themes the collection addresses that I haven’t written about in detail here are break ups, home and place, love, ancestry, blackness, white feminism, writing, Christmas’s mother, Internet and social media culture, and more. Also, there is a killer, hilarious poem addressed to the person who stole Christmas’s bike! I don’t want to quote the whole thing as it is best experienced as a delightful surprise near the end of the book, but I will quote perhaps my favourite stanza where Christmas writes

I assume you have no parents at all

but then I picture you

cowering in the womb of your mother’s basement

masturbating to the classic bike poetry of johnny macrae

using the tears of the bikeless as lube

In case it wasn’t already clear, The Gospel of Breaking is an amazing and beautiful collection of poems. If you’re a fan of Kai Cheng Thom and Amber Dawn’s poetry, I would heartily recommend Jillian Christmas’s work. While her voice is obviously unique, her poetry pulls a similar powerful lyricism and passion out of specific experiences. Her gorgeous, fiery words on essential topics and skillful, clever use of poetic devices are equal only to each other.

Posted in Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Poetry, Queer | 1 Comment

Interview with a Queer Reader: Leora Spitzer talks Queer Jewish Books, Queer Fanfiction, and Still Looking for a Book that is “Yours”

Guess what … interview with a queer reader is back! I owe today’s interviewee Leora a HUGE apology as her amazingly interesting and thoughtful responses to my queer reader questions have been sitting in my email inbox for literally years. One of the upsides to the shitty situation of being laid off is that I’ve had time to go back and dig into the work that I love doing for my blog like this. Unfortunately working (sometimes more than) fulltime at the library leaves me little energy for it—if only I were independently wealthy!

Please enjoy Leora’s answers and chime in with your own in the comments. I’m thinking of reviving this series, at least for the next few months while I am still at home social distancing. Would anyone be interested in being interviewed? Send me an email at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com. Now to introduce Leora—in her own words, actually as she did a fabulous, succinct job:

Leora Spitzer is a queer Jewish bibliophile living in St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a major in Urban Studies and a minor in Drama. It is her ambition to write biographies of badass queer women that few people know about but everyone should.  You can find her on Twitter at @leora_hugs.

[Two notes: 1) this interview concluded in April 2018; 2) it is a bit different than the others as Leora and I had an ongoing email thread that strayed sometimes from the set queer reader interview questions I usually use to structure the interviews.]

Leora Spitzer Picture

Hi Leora!

A little about me to start with: I live in St. Louis. I grew up in the Boston area. I came out officially as bi just about two years ago. Although I’d known since high school at least that I was attracted to women and to men (though I’d always taken attraction to men as a given because, y’know, heteronormativity), it took me a long time to actually name and claim my own queerness. I’ve always been an avid reader, but have only started actively searching out queer content in the last year or so. I’m currently working at a local nonprofit as an Americorps, but my dream is to write biographies of badass (possibly queer) women that few people know about but everybody should.

So the first question I have for you is: 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 specifically or did you just happen across it?)

The first really explicitly queer book I remember reading was a memoir about a gay man living in New York City, closely followed by an anthology by Jewish queer writers. My older sibling had just come out to me (they now identify as queer and genderqueer; at the time they had come out as lesbian) right before spending three months abroad. Eager to have a room of my own, I moved into their room while they were gone and quickly discovered their not-so-well hidden stash of queer books and proceeded to read them all. So while I wasn’t exactly searching for queer books, it also was not a coincidence that I found it. At the time I thought of it as trying to understand my sibling better.

About a year later, my first girlfriend gave me Annie on my Mind while we were closeted in high school together, and I remember very much having a crush on Annie and crying through a bunch of it, but I didn’t make any real effort to find more books like it, nor did I really think of it as “my” story in any way, even though it very much was in many ways.

The first queer book I remember “just happening across” was The Color Purple. I knew almost nothing about it going in, just that it was African-American and had won a Pulitzer prize, which was enough for me start it and barely enough to get me to push through the brutal first few pages. I remember second-guessing myself towards the beginning, when Celie is first fascinated by Shug, and wondering if I was reading too much into it. I was really delighted to discover later in the book that I had not been misinterpreting it after all and it actually was hella queer.

Have you seen patterns in what people’s first queer books are? I’m wondering what classics I may have missed out on…

I haven’t noticed a pattern of first books (yet, anyway). It seems all over the map! Maybe because some people are intentionally seeking out queer books when they first read them and others stumble upon them so that leads you to different books. I think it makes a difference how old you are too! Someone said a Malinda Lo book was their first, and when I was coming out Malinda Lo hadn’t written any books yet!

There are definitely books that come up as favourites frequently, some of which you mentioned (Annie on My Mind, The Color Purple). I only read The Color Purple last year if you can believe it! Other ones that have come up in more than one interview are Kushiel’s Dart, Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress, Alison Bechdel’s stuff (her memoir Fun Home and the Dykes to Watch Out For comics) and Nevada by Imogen Binnie (which seems especially important for trans readers).

What are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books? Do they overlap with any of the first queer books you read? I have noticed that some do for many people. It’s like the first queer books they read always hold a special place in their hearts.

Fascinating. I read all the Kushiel’s Legacy books in the last several months and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but in terms of actual queer content, I liked Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia and Saints Astray much better, especially Saints Astray, which features a joyous duo of queer ladies kicking ass while being very much in love. Saints Astray probably makes the shortlist of favorite queer books because while there is plenty of plot-related angst, their relationship is a source of so much joy.

Ivan Coyote’s story collection Missed Her is excellent in its entirety, but it has one short piece, “Hats Off” that is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. It opens, “To all the beautiful, kick-ass, fierce, and full-bodied femmes out there, I would like to extend my thanks to you.” I started crying the first time I read it, well before I came out, because it was the first time that I’d ever felt really seen in my own femme queerness. At the time, I was still reluctant to claim any label further than “mostly straight” because I thought I was too femme and too attracted to men to really qualify as queer, but even when I had trouble recognizing myself, it felt in that piece that Ivan recognized me. I’ve got it bookmarked on the shelf next to my bed where I can read it whenever I am feeling invisible or doubting my place in the queer community. I think I would have loved it no matter when I came across it, but it definitely has a special place in my heart as one of my very first queer books and certainly the first one that I felt was talking about and celebrating me.

Beyond the Pale, by Elana Dykewomon, is another favorite. It tells the story of a bunch of queer Jewish women in the early twentieth century, from pogroms in Europe to working in sweatshops and union protests in New York City. More than any other book I’ve read, it feels like the story of my ancestors. It does have one unfortunate scene with a trans woman that is rather transphobic, which is really frustrating and infuriating in a book that is otherwise so excellent.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the Elemental Logic series. It was super fun to have all the things I love about high fantasy (adventure, brilliant worldbuilding, intrigue, compelling character arcs, magic, gorgeous scenery, struggles with the essential nature of humanity, etc) and also a world where it wasn’t “queer” to be queer, where people of all different backgrounds and classes were in LGBTQ2IA+ relationships by the standards of our world and nobody looked twice.

Ooh, great choices! Ivan Coyote was a really important queer writer for me too when I was first coming out. I remember going to one of their live storytelling events at UVic when I was an undergrad student there and not out yet and being so terrified (I went by myself!) but also so so excited to be listening to their queer stories in the company of other queer people. Ivan’s femme appreciation pieces are especially lovely. It’s so nice to hear what a profound effect that one piece had on you. ❤

I read Beyond the Pale when I was a baby queer too! I remember liking it but also being embarrassed to be carrying around a book whose author’s last name was “Dykewomon.” I guess she wasn’t thinking of scared young people carrying her book around when she chose that name to put on the cover. It reminds me of hearing Imogen Binnie talk about naming her novel Nevada and how important it was for her to have a title that didn’t out the book as trans so trans readers could read it in public, ask for it, etc. without outing themselves.

I haven’t read the Elemental Logic series myself but I have heard lots of good things. So many books, so little time. I wish it were true that librarians got to read all day at work.

So you appreciated Ivan Coyote’s book as a celebration of femmes but is there a book (by a femme or not) that you feel best reflects your own experiences or speaks to you the most as a femme, as a bi person, etc?

Wow! I’d love to hear Ivan live. That sounds amazing.

I hadn’t really thought about safe titles but it makes a lot of sense. I’ll keep it in mind if I ever get around to actually writing one of the several queer books I want to write someday…

I wish I had a nice long list to give you, but honestly I’ve read very few books that I actually felt reflected my experiences as bi or femme. I’d love to find more. Vow of Celibacy by Erin Judge comes to mind. I was really dubious about it at first because of the title (I’m not a fan of celibacy) but it turned out to be really fun. In particular, the sections about the main character’s sexual awakening and discovering the joy of flirting and sleeping with men and women really resonated with me.

But I’ve been racking my brains, and though I’ve read a handful of fantasy novels, biographies, and memoirs with bi characters, none of them reflected my own experiences particularly. The fantasy characters are in such a different cultural context that while I appreciate them and their love stories, they aren’t like mine at all, and I haven’t found any biographies or memoirs that echoed my own history very much.

I’ve only recently actively started looking for queer books at all, but I do wish I’d had even one example of bi characters in my books in middle or high school, and I could really use some more now. I just want a book set in the modern United States where a bi character genuinely engages with the cultural norms around her relationships with honesty and without too much angst, and she wears rainbows and flirts with everyone (or not) and never cuts her hair. (My mom and brother have both suggested that I just date men because it’s easier and I won’t have to deal with homophobia that way, but I actually prefer dating women because I don’t have to deal with toxic masculinity that way, and I’d love to see a character deal with all those different expectations).

So to answer your question, I guess I’m still looking for a book that is really “mine”.

Ivan is so great live! I know they do travel quite a bit doing storytelling so you should watch out for a show some time near you. I hope you get to see them someday!!

I have heard really great things about Vow of Celibacy! It’s only my especially excited about shelf on Goodreads. I’ve heard so many great things about it! I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet, actually. I did this list for Autostraddle a little while ago about books with bisexual women main character that aren’t YA or erotica; if you haven’t seen it already, maybe some of those might appeal (Vow of Celibacy is on it but hopefully you haven’t read some of the others)!

I totally feel you on wanting “a book set in the modern United States where a bi character genuinely engages with the cultural norms around her relationships with honesty and without too much angst, and she wears rainbows and flirts with everyone (or not) and never cuts her hair,” except I’m Canadian so that aspect would be an added bonus! Well you know what they say: if you can’t find the book you want to read in the world, you should write it yourself!

Ugh at your mom and brother saying you should just date men. I would love to read a book where the character dealt with all those expectations. So real, unfortunately.

You’ve kind of answered my next question (Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?) but maybe you have other ideas of queer books that you think don’t exist yet that you want to read!

I actually need to add something to my answer from last week–Just this weekend I read A Girl Walks Into a Book, by Miranda K. Pennington, which was part biography of the Brontes, part analysis of the Brontes’ books, and part memoir about the author’s relationship with the books she loves so much and how they influenced her life. While her bisexuality was not a huge part of the book, there were bits that really spoke to my experience as a nerdy bi bibliophile, like her high school self realizing that she was “swoony” over both Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. I totally remember having the experience she describes of admiring heroines in my novels and not being sure whether I wanted to be them (and date their awesome partner) or date them (the answer, of course, was both, but I didn’t know “both” was an option for lots of things at the time). It was a really fun book overall.

I’ve read Hild from your list, along with Vow of Celibacy, but I’ll definitely look into reading more of those!

I’d love a book that focuses on queer community and chosen family, not just of the romantic variety. Maybe about a young lonely queer person trying to find The One and instead finding/building deep friendships with other queer folks, for a different kind of happy ending. My chosen queer family is so important to me–they’re the people that I call when I need help, and they call me, and there’s a deep love there that doesn’t have anything to do with romance, but absolutely has to do with being LGBTQ2IA+. Maybe a book like that exists, but I haven’t found it yet.

I’d also love more fantasy/sci-fi novels in worlds with totally different gender roles and expectations than ours. If you’re going to have magic, why have sexism? I have this concept for a world where instead of getting gender assigned at birth, there’s one pronoun for all kids, and they have coming-of-age ceremonies where they announce their adult pronouns, but there’s so many ways to play with and subvert our expectations.

I also want more biographies of historical queer people. I read the Irrepressible: Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham and that was just so cool! I want more like that.

One day, I really would like to write some of the books I want to exist. I struggle with world building, especially for fantasy (how does magic work??) but also like, what does the villain want? We shall see.

You’ve been doing a lot of research on what books are out there in a ton of genres. What major gaps are you seeing?

Ooh, A Girl Walks Into a Book sounds so good! I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it!! I am adding it to my especially excited shelf right now!

Books that focus on queer community and chosen family are definitely hard to find. It feels like a lot of media (books but also TV and movies) love to feature a queer person or two within the context of straight /cis characters/ world and shy away from all queer character casts. That trend is so funny because it’s so the opposite of my experience and a lot of other queer people I know! It seems like straight/cis people think it’s unrealistic when maybe the opposite is true? I think it’s also the assumption all queer characters casts wouldn’t appeal to mainstream audiences.

Another related question I had for Autostraddle was books focused on queer friendship, which were fun to find! About half the books I ended up choosing for my list were YA, which seems to be the general trend when I’m looking for hard to find topics or specific kinds of queer books. Go, YA! They always seem to be a bit ahead of the curve.

Yeah, SF/F that just reinforces societal norms is so over! I love your idea (:

As far as major gaps I’ve noticed I think the biggest issue is having intersectional queer identities (QTPOC, disabled queer ppl, etc.) represented (both characters and authors) and the more marginalized parts of the community (trans, asexual/aromantic, intersex, two-spirit) represented, again as characters and authors. It’s not too hard (at least for me) to find white LGB characters in every major genre (SF/F, mystery, literary, romance, etc, and even in sub-genres like urban fantasy, epic fantasy, etc.) but it’s always more difficult, sometimes very difficult to find even LGB POC characters and authors.

I aim to have 50% POC characters and authors in every queer book list I write, and sometimes it’s actually impossible. With books with T2IA characters, we’re still at the beginning stages of having authors who share those identities having work about T2IA characters published. I recently got asked about making a list of fiction with intersex characters, and from my initial research, I think there are literally not enough books actually written by intersex people to make an 8 book list, which is pretty sad! Many of the ones out there by non-intersex authors are really harmful, unfortunately.

Actually this ties in nicely with the next question: How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read? Sometimes for me I can’t tell if there’s a genuine gap somewhere or if I just can’t find the type of queer book I’m looking for!

Yeah, those are pretty major gaps. I don’t think I’ve read any books with intersex characters, let alone actually written by intersex authors, and intersectionality is so so important and so hard to find.

Honestly, your Autostraddle lists have been the best resource I’ve found for finding LGBTQ2IA+ books to read. The first one I found was the queer high fantasy list just by googling “queer fantasy books,” and from there linked to your other lists. The urban fantasy list, the bi fiction and nonfiction lists, and the sci-fi list have also been quite helpful. Unfortunately my local library consortium doesn’t always have the books, which is frustrating, but I’ve managed to get a bunch of them from the library, so I’m really glad it’s there.

Other than that, I mainly find books by word of mouth–my roommate and I often exchange whatever queer books we’ve found lately, and other friends pass books around. Once I find an author I like, I try to get my hands on whatever else they’ve written, which may or may not be queer, but at least is more likely to be queer than random books of the shelves.

I also browse in my favorite independent bookstores, both of which have note cards with staff recommendations all over the shelves. That’s how I found A Girl Walks Into A Book–it doesn’t say anywhere on it that the author is bi, but the staff recommendation card did, so I bought it, and I’m really glad I did.

Your lists have certainly made searching much, much easier than it otherwise would be. Thank you so much for putting those lists together! Other online lists I’ve found are much harder to navigate, just have lists of titles with no further information to help me choose, end up being rather porn-heavy or unrealistic, not actually that queer, and certainly don’t have your focus on including POC. There are some good readings lists of queer Jewish books out there, which is another subgenre I’m interested in, but they tend to be pretty heavy on memoirs and essays. Even the rare fiction tends to be very much about being queer and Jewish, rather than just having a queer Jewish protagonist, if that’s a distinction that makes sense. I do also really appreciate the nonfiction stuff, but it tends to be more emotional than I want to deal with in my leisure reading. Then again, maybe I’m looking hard enough for those books, since I’m pretty sure they’re out there somewhere.

Aside from the gaps I mentioned in the last email, it hasn’t been that hard for me to find the queer books that I want (again, very much thanks to you!) but I have found that I had to go looking actively. I very rarely stumble across a queer book or even a queer character in a book unexpectedly.

I totally dropped the ball with this lovely ongoing email interview and I’m so sorry! Life has been real nutty since I started working full time. I actually only have one more question for you: 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?

I’ve actually been meaning to email you again because I read one of your other interviews recently and realized that I’d completely neglected to discuss the significance of queer fanfiction, despite reading several thousand words of it every month. Somehow, despite some of it being better written than actual books I’ve read, I neglected to count it as “literature,” but some of the best queer romances I’ve read are in the fandom community. Fanfiction tends to have way more bi visibility, generally queer characters, and a much greater willingness to have polyamorous happy endings than general fiction. Plus, the fandom community is way more conscious of mental health needs and respectful of trigger warning than anything else I experience, which I appreciate to much.

And now that I’m counting fanfiction as literature, I have to revise my favorite queer fiction list to include Known Associates, a novel-length Captain America fanfiction about a genderqueer Steve Rogers that features a meticulously researched, vibrant, gorgeously written look into the queer activist community in 1940s New York and then a heart-wrenching character study on what happens when you wake up in the future and your world is gone and none of the words you have to describe your identity are accepted anymore. Plus, you know, superheros! I stayed up all night reading it the first time and have reread it more than once.

On to your actual question:

Yes! I’ve attended a monthly Lesbian Book Club at a local bookstore most months for about a year now. I was complaining to a friend of mine that I didn’t know how to meet queer women. He suggested going to the (only) lesbian bar in the area, but I was not enthusiastic because bars are loud and overwhelming. “I just wanna meet someone at the libaray!” I whined. to which he responded that I ought to go to Lesbian Book Club, and if I were an anime character, there would’ve just been a bunch of exclamation marks around my head at that point. Not only did I discover a lovely group of queer women, I met my current girlfriend there. While not every book we’ve read has been great (I have read fanfiction significantly better written than a few of the books we’ve discussed) our discussions have been really engaging and it’s just a really nice community.

The bookstore we meet at is queer-owned and gives us a discount on all the books we read for the club. There have been a few times that I’ve felt like a bit of an imposter since I’m not actually a lesbian (nobody’s said anything actually biphobic, just that the not-unreasonable assumption is that everyone there is a lesbian) but it is just so wonderful to be in a space explicitly by and for queer women that I can handle a little bit of invisibility or come out if the conversation gets personal (it’s a pretty fluid group and there are often new people there, so just mentioning it once doesn’t fix the problem).

Talking about books is one of my very favorite things, and I really love getting to that with other people, not for class or work, just for fun. I am an extremely opinionated person both about really significant things and about ones I recognize as objectively trivial but nevertheless care deeply about (e.g., don’t even get me started on how much I hate Romione), and people at book club often disagree with me about aspects of the books we read in ways that are really fascinating and helpful to me, especially in a context where I am able to trust their good intentions and different experiences in a way that I struggle to when the person disagreeing with me a cishet white Christian dude.

Wow, both of these things are really cool to hear about. I’ve had a few people doing these interviews ask if fanfiction “counts” and I’m always surprised people thought it might not! Of course!! Known Associates sounds really awesome. I’m happy to add it to your list of fav queer reads.

That lesbian book club sounds awesome (well, except the bi invisibility part…). I really like the aspect of getting to hear from people who disagree with you about aspects of the book. I run a book club as a librarian at work and we always have the best conversations when some people like the book and others don’t and they talk about why! It’s also really awesome you met your girlfriend there. What a nice nerdy queer love story.

This has been a lot of fun to reflect on! I always love talking about my favorite books. I’ve really enjoyed this discussion with you!

Thanks so much for sharing with us Leora! All of your answers are full of so many wonderful queer book recommendations and so thoughtful reflections about identity and reading. I’m so grateful to get to share your words with the wider queer book internet!

Posted in Bisexual, Fantasy, Fiction, Interview with a Queer Reader, Ivan E. Coyote, Jewish, Non-Canadian, Queer | 1 Comment

For the Fans: A Review of HIGH SCHOOL by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin

There is some art that you discover early, perhaps at an age too young to truly appreciate it. That art continues to resonate throughout your life as your appreciation grows. Then there’s art that defines a period in your life. While it still holds a special place in your heart as you get older, when you revisit it, it doesn’t hold the same significance or evoke the same passion as it once did.

I’ve discovered by reading the memoir High School by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin that Tegan and Sara seem to have fallen into the latter category for me. It’s not that I didn’t like the book. It’s just that I didn’t love it as I had hoped. Overall it was an entertaining albeit a bit underwhelming of a read. If High School had come out around the era when the albums The Con (2007) and Sainthood (2009) did, I’m quite sure I would have devoured and absolutely adored it. The Con was a foundational album for my coming of age and coming out. I was obsessed with it. I listened to it incessantly for years. It was the music I put on as I walked through the city I lived in right after I cut my hair short for the first time and felt so exposed by being on the street looking gay.

I didn’t love Sainthood as much as The Con, but I loved Tegan and Sara enough then that my ex-girlfriend and I bought tickets to see them in Portland, planned to drive for 7 and a half hours across the border to go to the concert, only to be caught in a crazy snowstorm in the mountains with summer tires and forced to turn around and go home. Oh my god were we devastated. I actually only managed to see Tegan and Sara live for the first time at their 10th anniversary of The Con tour in 2017. It was an homage to my younger baby queer self to finally see them in concert. It was great, but it wasn’t the kind of magic it would have been had I seen them on the original tour.

That kind of sums up my experience of the memoir High School. My sense is it’s a book for Tegan and Sara fans that likely won’t much hold the interest of readers who aren’t already really into the band or the two women as queer music icons (which they undeniably are). While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, my somewhat lukewarm response to the book made me realize I couldn’t really count myself as a big Tegan and Sara fan anymore. It felt very weird to realize this!

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Tegan Quin and Sara Quin in high school; photo from teganandsara.com

High School is divided into sections by grades 10, 11, and 12 as both women alternate telling stories about their lives in chronological order. The book focused more on their relationships with friends, first girlfriends, and parents than on their discovering playing and writing music. This choice surprised me. I wanted more details about how they wrote their first songs, especially given that they didn’t have any formal training in guitar. (I still find this unbelievable and impressive — although they do talk about early piano lessons as kids). I am also always impressed to read about queer teen girls who actually had, like, girlfriends in high school, even if they were secret girlfriends. I could only have dreamed of having a girlfriend!

For some people High School will evoke memories of their own high school years, but this didn’t really happen for me. My high school experiences were very different from theirs. Tegan and Sara write about partying with people in their twenties, going to raves, taking acid, being disinterested in school, and powerful friendships with girls that turned romantic and sexual. They also write about the intense conflicts they had with each other and their parents. I literally didn’t experience any of those things. This is in no way a judgement on them or others who see their high school experiences reflected in the Quin sisters’ — just an explanation of why I didn’t connect to their stories as much as others seem to have.

high-school-tegan-and-sara

Overall this memoir is very much a companion piece to Tegan and Sara’s latest album, Hey I’m Just Like You. (Although I’ve read that the idea for the album — re-recording songs the sisters wrote when they were in high school — came about because they were researching and going through old things as part of the book writing process. So clearly the book came first.) I think for fans who are excitedly listening to the album, the book is a fun companion that adds context and depth to some of the songs. I’ve given the album a few listens, but to be honest I was underwhelmed. There goes another reason I might have been more into the memoir.

I listened to the audiobook version read by the authors and would definitely recommend that format. Along with their expressive voices, the audiobook includes snippets of song demos, home recordings of them talking, and at the end an interview they did with each other about the experience writing the book. I enjoyed the audiobook a lot with all the added value. If you’re familiar with the songs on Hey I’m Just Like You, it’ll be especially cool to hear the early demo versions of them in the audiobook.

Have you read High School? Do you consider yourself a big Tegan and Sara fan? What did you think of the book? I’m very curious to see if anyone else had a similar experience to me!

Posted in Alberta, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Lesbian, memoir, Non-Fiction, Queer | Leave a comment

An Incredible Piece of Art and My Favourite Book of 2020 So Far: A Review of THE SUBTWEET by Vivek Shraya

After I finished reading Vivek Shraya’s latest novel The Subtweet, I sat on it for a few weeks before posting anything on social media. I delayed writing about it because I was so overcome with the feeling that my words were inadequate in face of what an incredible piece of art it is. I was overwhelmed with how thought-provoking and complex it was, while at the same time so readable and, as the somewhat awkward expression goes, “un-putdownable.” It is one of those books whose world and characters I deeply missed after I closed the back cover.

The Subtweet features Neela and Rukmini, two South Asian Canadian women musicians in Toronto who form a friendship when Rukmini covers one of Neela’s songs. Characters are the most important part of any piece of fiction for me, and The Subtweet is a prime example of why. Shraya does such an incredible job of showing how achingly real people who exist only in a novel can be.

I loved how Shraya refused to make Neela and Rukmini “likable.” When I say Neela and Rukmini aren’t nice and likeable, I don’t mean that they aren’t kind to each other (and others) and that I didn’t like and sympathize with them. I absolutely did. But they aren’t “nice” and “likeable” in a way that flattens and uncomplicates them. Rukmini and Neela are not made easily digestible and palatable, which is how a sexist white supremacist society wants them. Neither is the villain or the victim.

Once while I was in the middle of this book, I was 20 minutes into doing the dishes when I realized I had been washing the pots and pans in silence, just thinking about Neela and Rukmini. This is very unusual for me. I am an obsessive audiobook listener and never normally do chores without one playing, or at least music. But these characters had captured my imagination so much that I didn’t even notice I was scrubbing away in silence.

The concepts in The Subtweet are as thoughtfully explored as the characters. Among other themes, the novel investigates brown female friendship, professional jealousy, the pleasures and price of making art (much like Amber Dawn’s recent poetry collection My Art is Killing Me – stay tuned for a review of that book soon!), social media and call-out culture, and the way systemic racism and sexism pits women of colour against each other.

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Vivek Shraya; photo from the MAC Canadian Originals campaign

I don’t think I’ve ever read a contemporary work of fiction that so authentically and meaningfully integrates social media into the narrative. As is obvious by the title, Twitter plays a significant role, as does Instagram. Texting is also heavily used a method of communication (gasp—just like in real life!). One of the ways in which the differences between Neela and Rukmini’s personalities are highlighted is through their use of social media. Rukmini effortlessly gains likes through her fun Insta photos with effervescent captions full of cheerfullness, praise, and tags for friends. Neela wonders why her weird niches tweets about her dreams aren’t popular. Although they are actually the same age, their respective digital and social media literacy levels couldn’t be farther apart. Neela doesn’t even know what a subtweet is until Rukmini explains it to her.

The two women’s evolving friendship is fascinating. When the novel opens with Neela, readers see that she is an established musical artist, with a body of work under her belt. But she’s still working her day job as a transcriber and is yearning for critical acclaim and validation from peers and the industry. She’s a perfectionist, opinionated, grumpy, and tends to see things in black and white. One of the first things Shraya tells us about her, through a brilliant use of free indirect discourse, is: “Neela loathed cover songs.” I found myself really relating to Neela’s grumpiness about people standing at concerts and forcing everyone behind them to stand up too. Can’t you just enjoy the music sitting down?!

Rukmini has only recently starting making music ( although we learn later than she does have a history as a musician of sorts, so this is a revival for her). In fact, all she’s been working on are covers. Rukmini is open, bubbly, and enthusiastic. In university, she got super into postcolonial feminist theory. She was the type of keen student who read the “suggested” readings in addition to the required ones. Rukmini is a fan. Her emotionally intense reaction to first seeing Neela perform is a beautiful representation of unabashed fan admiration. In contrast to Neela, Rukmini’s musical success after covering Neela’s “Every Song” comes swiftly. This is the beginning of the end.

There is an intense focus on Neela and Rukmini’s relationship in the same way that a romance novel focuses on the connection between the romantic pairing. The insecurities manifesting themselves, miscommunications understandable because of the insecurities, shy attempts at connection, overthinking how and when to contact the other person — it’s all there. As Shraya puts it: “The discovering-each-other phase, the addictive self-reflection-through-another’s-eyes phase.” Shraya also features Neela and Rukmini’s relationships with other women of colour (Rukmini’s roommate Puna, Rukmini’s former bandmate Malika, Rukmini’s coworker Sumi, and Neela’s keyboardist Kasi).

At first it’s almost unremarkable that something so central to most stories about women is missing. Then you realize how remarkable it is—there is no romance narrative, not even as a subplot. In fact, there is almost zero discussion at all of any of these women’s romantic or sexual relationships or orientations. There is a rumour in the wake of Neela and Rukmini’s friendship implosion that the two were dating—but this is only mentioned in the form of a media clip. The only sex scene in the novel is an absolutely incredible masturbation scene that leads Neela to a creative breakthrough. I hadn’t realized how much a fresh breath of air a novel that completely ignores women’s romantic and sexual relationships would be until I read The Subtweet. (And I love a good romance, not going to lie).

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The Subtweet is also very much a love letter to women (mostly of colour) artists and theorists of all stripes. Frequently throughout the novel, Shraya names artistic creators. It’s another thing I never realized was so missing from contemporary literature until I noticed it. I talk about women writers, musicians, journalists, and more all the time by name — why have I never seen it reflected in fiction? Shraya mentions, for example: Shani Mootoo, Lykke Li, June Jordan, Gayrati Spivak, Bjork, and Meera Sethi. I found myself googling and enjoying learning about the people I wasn’t already familiar with — when was the last time that happened when you were reading fiction? (I am now obsessed with Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes album, to be honest — thanks Vivek!).

If you’re familiar with Vivek Shraya, you might be wondering what kind of trans content there is in The Subtweet. It’s quite a ways into the novel when Rukmini casually refers to herself as trans. She wonders if she has been chosen as the opener for a famous cis white girl pop musician Hayley Trace because she’s a “hip brown trans girl.” That’s it. Her being trans is never referenced again. What a way to shake up cis readers’ cissexist expectations! (I include myself there).

More importantly, though, this revelation made me think about trans readers and how Shraya is writing to and about brown trans women. What if we were to assume all the major women characters in the novel were trans? Why not? Is Shraya writing to a brown trans woman readership in which being brown and trans can just be assumed? I’ll admit, when I first finished reading the novel, I was thinking of Rukmini as trans and Neela as cis. But that was merely because Neela hadn’t been explicitly described as trans. But she hadn’t been explicitly described as cis either. There’s a lot to think about here, and I would love to hear a brown trans woman reader’s thoughts!

Vivek Shraya is a jill of many artistic trades, including music. This obviously explains her intimate knowledge of music as displayed in the novel. She’s also known for doing  inventive genre defying work, which explains the brilliant idea of writing, performing, and recording the major songs by Neela and Rukmini that are featured in the book. Ummmm how cool is this?? Of course when you’re reading about these performers you wish you could hear the songs. Don’t worry, Vivek Shraya has got you!

Every purchase of The Subtweet comes with a free download of songs by Rukmini and Neela performed by Shraya, as well as a cameo by Rachel Cantu singing as “Hayley Trace” aka white cis girl pop musician. (Sidenote about how Hayley and another white musician, a dude, are portrayed in painful accuracy as so called woke white people conversant in social justice language just enough to fend off criticism and to appear to be doing the right thing while making themselves look good). The original (Neela) and cover version (Rukmini) of “Every Song” are also available on Spotify. Although it’s Shraya who sings as both Neela and Rukmini, you’ll be surprised at how much she sounds like a different person. I have had the Neela original on repeat lately.

Okay have I convinced you that you need to read this book? Check out the virtual book tour Vivek Shraya is doing for The Subtweet. By the way, while writing this review, I listened to two new albums by women musicians on the day they were released: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia. It felt like a very appropriate way to write about my favourite book of 2020 so far.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Postcolonial, Queer, South Asian, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 3 Comments

Literary Queer Comfort Food for Tough Times: A Review of REBENT SINNER by Ivan Coyote

In the hellish past (literal) week and (figurative) year, I have been yearning for some literary queer comfort food. A new(ish) Ivan Coyote book is the perfect antidote! I actually read Rebent Sinner in late 2019, when it had been years since I had read any of the legendary queer storyteller’s work. The experience was like a cozy homecoming. Given that I now have ample time to write for my blog again (since I’ve been laid off lol/sob) here I am to tell you all about it.

It is always such a treat and privilege to get a new Ivan Coyote book. I’ve been reading their work for a decade — gosh that makes me feel old — and it always makes me feel strengthened and empowered and full of community. Wouldn’t you love to do something that makes you feel connected to queer community but also doesn’t require you to leave the house a la social distancing? Read Rebent Sinner!

Like Ivan Coyote’s many previous books, Rebent Sinner is a collection of personal essays, anecdotes, and other unclassifiable memoir-ish stuff. But this time around, the writing often has a more elegiac tone than I’ve seen before. Their perspective is also a little more nuanced and complex — but still with their trademark vulnerability, kindness, and curiosity. Let’s not forget, though, the flip side of fierceness, strength, and determination that also shine throughout the collection.

17325905_web1_IvanCoyote_photo-by-Jourdan-Tymkow
Ivan Coyote; Photo by Jourdan Tymkow

These two sides of Coyote’s writing sometimes emerge when they tell two different kinds of stories about the same event or place. On one page, there’s a heartwarming story about a church basement event at Moose Jaw Pride, about meeting a grandmother in her mid-80s who comes to the Ivan Coyote talk because she’s trying to learn about her trans grandson. She tells Ivan that even though they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, she’s trying. She says “God bless [you] about four or five times.” The next page’s much shorter story reads:

You want to hear the other story that happened to me in Moose Jaw? I got called a dyke bitch in the elevator at the hotel. No one wants to hear that story, though. But that happened, too. I never once felt safe on the streets in that town, night or day, but that is so normal it’s not even a story. But it’s true.

rebent-sinnerSome of the other most moving material is Coyote looking back at the impact their work has had on the people it has reached, and also themselves. One essay is about writing a Facebook post in 2016 in response to a situation they had stumbled upon at a bus stop where a woman was being harassed by a man she didn’t know after not responding to his hello. The post ended up being one of Coyote’s most popular ever, and they got attention all over the world. A lot of this attention was, to put it very mildly, not good. Coyote writes:

This is what I learned: I look like a man to most people in my tiny profile picture on social media…  Men get listened to by default… I was perceived by most to be a man speaking to other men. Most men don’t respond well to this… The whole experience rattled the ghost of the little girl I once was, and shook loose my own stories, and my own scars. It also made me flip over my masculine privilege and examine it, take it apart, and study the pieces… Butches and trans masculine people, especially of my age, have not been afforded many healthy role models when it comes to constructing our own masculinities, and we often assemble ourselves around the remains of our own traumas and still-screaming memories of failed attempts of being feminine.

Other topics throughout the collections are about Coyote’s work talking to schools about anti-bullying, being used as a spokesperson for “diversity” as a queer non-binary person, (searching for and perhaps moving towards being) queer elders, travel, dealing with TERFs, family, and random human connections. Although they write about tough stuff and do not suffer oppressive bullshit or paint anything with rose-coloured glasses, Rebent Sinner leaves me feeling like I can face the world. The power of storytelling indeed.

Posted in Butch, Canadian, Ivan E. Coyote, Non-Fiction, Queer, Trans, Trans Masculine, Transgender, Vancouver | 6 Comments