Feeling inspired by a recent post on Autostraddle about favourite authors and the influences they’ve had in your life, I decided to do a top ten list of my own. (Speaking of Autostraddle, the latest Lez Libery Lit column mentioned my recent post on queer Canadian women’s YA fiction; yay!). Let me be clear: this is an unadultered favourite list. I simply went with who I thought of first and felt really excited to include. This meant that I chose writers who made it really easy for me to love them; like Diana’s Aunt Josephine says in Anne of Green Gables: “I like people who make me love them. It saves me so much trouble in making myself love them.” While I think there’s great value in authors I’ve learned to love and/or appreciate (such as Jane Rule), none of those are on this list. I realize it’s uneven in many ways: although all the authors are women (I didn’t plan that, I swear), all except two are white, seven are queer, and four are Canadian. In no particular order, here they are:
My Top Ten Favourite Authors
Books I’ve Read: Monkey Beach; Traplines; Blood Sports
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: None, as far as I know. Eden, why don’t you have a new book out? I’m desperately waiting.
Favourite: Monkey Beach
Why: Eden Robinson was the first writer I read who really made my home—the Pacific Northwest—feel like a place mysterious and fascinating enough to be the setting for remarkable works of literature. Monkey Beach is a kind of coming of age story about Lisa, a young Haisla woman dealing with her brother’s disappearance on a fishing boat. It’s real and gritty at the same time as it weaves Indigenous mythologies into Lisa’s life. Robinson’s writing is darkly funny, poignant, brutally honest, and versatile. When someone challenged her by saying she could only write about Native characters—Robinson is a member of the Haisla Nation like the main character of Monkey Beach—she went and wrote a chilling and brilliant revised fairy tale about lower-class white folks in Vancouver. If you think Can Lit is boring or cutesy, read her work and be proven very, very wrong.
Books I’ve Read: Orlando (at least four times); To The Lighthouse; A Room of One’s Own; The Voyage Out
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: Mrs. Dalloway; Jacob’s Room; any of Woolf’s diaries; The Waves; Between the Acts; Flush; The Years (I call myself a Woolf fan! I need to get on reading some of these, pronto.)
Favourite: it’s a close call between Orlando and To The Lighthouse, but I’m going to have to go with Orlando, since I’ve read it so many times and I wrote my Master’s thesis on it.
Why: First, I love Woolf because she’s the raddest of our early twentieth century queer feminist foremothers. Right from the opening sentence of Orlando—“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”—Woolf shows us that she’s never going to take gender for granted, and she intends to seriously fuck with whatever you think you know about men, women, femininity, and masculinity. In case you didn’t know, Orlando is also a prolonged love letter to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover. (Queer feminist) politics aside, Woolf is quite simply a genius: reading To The Lighthouse is equivalent to taking a hallucinogenic. Seriously. Even when you don’t understand, you don’t care. I have never been so hypnotized by words, ever.
Books I’ve Read: Bow Grip; One Man’s Trash; Close to Spider Man; Loose End; The Slow Fix; Boys Like Her (written by Taste This, a collective Coyote was a part of); Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (edited with Zena Sharman)
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: Missed Her; One in Every Crowd
Favourite: It’s a tie between Loose End and The Slow Fix.
Why: Ivan Coyote was one of the first writers I began to read when I was coming out. Socially awkward as I am, I actually went to see her do some live storytelling by myself eons ago in Victoria; it literally changed my life. Her short—emphasis on short: most of her narratives are around a thousand words so that they can be easily memorized for performance—stories are perfect snippets of everyday (queer) life. Read or listen to her stories and you can just imagine she’s talking to you across the kitchen table or the bonfire. Whether she’s writing about masquerading as a boy at swimming lessons as a kid growing up in the Yukon, trying to find an unpretentious cup of coffee in Vancouver, or expressing her love for femmes with tear-jerking sincerity and grace, Coyote will never disappoint you. [*note: as of 2014, Ivan is using they as a pronoun and identifying as trans]
Books I Haven’t Read: Sexing the Cherry; Art Objects; Lighthousekeeping; The Powerbook; The Stone Gods; Boating for Beginners; Art & Lies; The World and Other Places; anything she’s written for children
Favourite: Up until recently it would have been Written on the Body, but I think Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? has moved into top spot.
Why: I’ve loved her writing for years and have counted her as one of the most talented living authors writing in English for a while now, but Jeanette Winterson has surpassed even my expectations with her recent memoir Why Be Happy? It’s at once profoundly sad, hopeful, desperate, ecstatic, and joyful. All of her writing has a profound knowledge that the stuff of our lives is inherently mythological; that her life, and her characters’ lives, are at once their own and something larger, mysterious, and beautiful. My second favourite, Written on the Body, is a gorgeous mediation on love and gender: throughout the novel you never know the name or gender of the lover/narrator, just that they ask: “Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them.” Indeed, Jeanette, indeed.
Books I Haven’t Read: I’ve read ’em all! Since I just finished reading her latest, I’m in for a long wait until I have new Anne Fleming to read. Sigh.
Why: My favourite thing about Anne Fleming’s writing is how she expertly uncovers the extraordinary in the everyday. As I wrote when I first read Pool-Hopping: her stories recall the everyday queerness of Ivan Coyote and the precision and impeccable narrative timing of Alice Munro. You couldn’t really ask for a better combination than that, now could you? Having read more of her work now, I couldn’t be more convinced. I also love that Fleming favours the short story format for these explorations (although Anomaly is a novel, born out of a short story). There’s a simple focus in her work on telling the story—something you don’t realize is missing in a lot of what you read until you come across it in Fleming’s work. Although smart, poignant, and funny, her stories utterly lack pretention and judgement. She shows an uncanny ability to move in and out of a very diverse list of characters’ minds and an unfailing generosity with them: even if they’re, for example, two average-sized straight dudes starting up a website called “Gay Dwarves of America.”
Books I’ve Read: Tipping the Velvet; Fingersmith; The Little Stranger; Affinity; The Night Watch
Books I Haven’t Read: I pretty much devoured everything she’d written after I first read Tipping the Velvet. I’m eagerly anticipating her latest novel, which apparently is a lesbian romance again (yay!) and set in 1920s London.
Favourite: Tipping the Velvet
Why: When I discovered Sarah Waters, I couldn’t believe that she was really writing what she was writing: lesbian historical fiction set in the Victorian period. You mean I can get my nerdy lesbian literature and nerdy 1800s fixes at the same time? Although she’s branched out a bit (The Night Watch is set during WW2 and The Little Stranger [gasp!] doesn’t feature any lesbians), I’ll always think of her as the author who finally took it upon herself to re-insert queer women into the 19th century imagination, in all its bawdy, melodramatic glory. What I love about Tipping the Velvet—I mean, besides the fact that the title is 1890s slang for cunnilingus—is that it’s not only set in the Victorian period but its writing style, plot, and structure borrow from novels of that time. There’s a cliffhanger at the end of every neatly plotted third of the book! Someone you thought was a villain becomes an ally, and vice versa! There’s cheating! Stage show drag! Underground lesbian bars! Sex! True love! It’s the most respectable trashy sexy writing you’ll ever read.
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: Out on Main Street and Other Stories; He Drown She in the Sea
Favourite: Cereus Blooms at Night
Why: When I think of writers whose works have had the most profound effect on me, Shani Mootoo and Cereus Blooms at Night come immediately to mind. Cereus is an achingly beautiful novel; this is not despite the fact that it deals with some heartbreaking issues of sexual violence, racism, homo/transphobia, and colonialism, but rather because even though it faces these devastations head on it still insists on love and hope. The second generation of characters in this novel, both dancing around the edges of trans- and queerness, rework and open up the possibilities of connection and love that were lost on their parents and grandparents. I love Mootoo’s writing, in both Cereus and Valmiki’s Daughter, because it’s so sensual and visceral. Her sentences are dripping with the smells, sights, and sounds of, on the one hand, bustling San Fernando streets and, on the other, buzzing, blooming Trinidadian gardens. Mootoo’s characters are as undeniably vibrant as her settings. Plus, Valmiki’s Daughter has one of the hottest lesbian sex scenes I’ve ever read, and I, unbelievably, had a chance to see her read it out loud. Life now complete.
Books I’ve Read: Fun Home; Are You My Mother? (which I found disappointing, unfortunately); all of the Dykes to Watch Out For in separate books, as well as the gigantic Essential Dykes to Watch Out For
Books I Haven’t Read Yet: I think I’ve even read everything she’s ever written on her blog. Have you seen this recent comic? Although, I haven’t read the edition of Best American Comics that she edited in 2010; I’m not sure if any of her work is featured in there or not.
Favourite: Fun Home
Why: When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that Alison Bechdel is such a talented artist with both pictures and words. Her graphic memoir Fun Home was also one of the first queer books I read when coming out and it’s remained one of my favourite books since then (I even had the chance to do a lecture on it in a popular culture class I was a TA for). There’s a lot of things to love about Fun Home: its mesmerizing circular structure; its skillful weaving of the Icarus myth into Bechdel’s relationship with her father; its gorgeously understated blue-accented black and white drawings; the painful beauty of Bechdel coming to terms with her and her father’s shared queerness and his death. Dykes to Watch Out For is quite different in many ways than Fun Home: political, sarcastic, and dramatic rather than personal, quiet, and melancholy. But I love DTWOF too. It’s essentially a contemporary version of a serialized Victorian novel—drama included—about a diverse group of American lesbians living through every Republican president from Reagan to the second George Bush. It’s hilarious, smart, and frankly, revolutionary, considering Bechdel started it in 1983.
Books I’ve Read: Emma; Pride and Prejudice; Sense and Sensibility; Northanger Abbey; Persuasion; Mansfield Park
Books I Haven’t Read: Lady Susan; any of her unfinished novels
Favourite: Pride and Prejudice
Why: Is there any woman in literature as irresistible as Elizabeth Bennett? I know everyone says Pride and Prejudice is their favourite, but I just never loved any of Austen’s other heroines as much as I loved Lizzy (Emma does come in second, though). Elizabeth is whip-smart and sarcastic, but loyal, genuine, and loving. She knows how to insult conceited upper-class men to their faces so cleverly they don’t even realize it until a few days later. She knows when to finally admit her mistakes, in the end. I remain convinced that her best friend Charlotte Lucas is really in love with her; how else could she have married that awful Mr. Collins (Austen’s utterly brilliant comic creation), unless she knew she could never have what she really wanted? Austen’s novels fulfill my desire for old-fashioned romance and curiosity about social customs and conventions of the past two centuries at the same time as they satisfy my need for strong, complex female characters. Also, they are witty in a way that only British writers seem capable of.
10) The Brontë Sisters (Okay, so I’m cheating: they’re three people, not one; but two of them sadly died very young, so never had time to amass as many works of literature as they were clearly capable of)
Books I’ve Read: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë; Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Books I Haven’t Read: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë; Shirley by Charlotte Brontë; Villette by Charlotte Brontë; The Professor by Charlotte Brontë; Poems by Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell (poems by all three sisters, under pseudonyms)
Favourite: Jane Eyre
Why: These three early 19th century women writers aren’t well known for little reason, although I’m not sure why Anne still remains the least celebrated, since her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is my second favourite. Tenant is a great Victorian romance, but it’s also unabashedly feminist: the protagonist Helen has actually left her abusive husband (taking her son with her) and is living apart from him when she meets who later becomes her second husband. Jane Eyre, of course, is the ultimate Brontë, and there’s always something new to discover. It’s a creepy mystery and thriller on one hand; on the other it’s a passionate and complex romance. It’s a fervent feminist treatise with a feisty freedom-loving heroine but its involvement in imperialism and racism is dubious at best. I’m always surprised when people dismiss Jane Eyre as some kind of cheesy so-called chick lit: the romance, even, is quite dark. I mean, Jane momentarily considers living “in sin” with Rochester when she finds out he’s married (this is the early 1800s, remember), and then he ends up nearly burnt to a crisp, maimed and blind when they do finally get together. Melodramatic, yes; sweet and simple, no. And speaking of Rochester’s brooding badass-ness, let’s not forget Emily Brontë’s brilliant solidification of the Byronic anti/hero with Wuthering Height’s irresistibly dark Heathcliff. Each of the works I’ve read is, in its own way, no short of genius.