“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” –Robyn Ochs
Yay! It’s bisexual awareness week! Okay, okay I know I’m a bit late to the party. (Bi awareness week technically ended on the 27th). But having relatively recently come out as bi, it’s pretty exciting to have this visibility thing happening for a whole week! I hope that LGBT and non-LGBT media continue to be AWARE after the week ends. One thing I’d like to see is authors and characters correctly identified as bi / some other non-monosexual term instead of gay or straight.
Because books are how I process almost everything, of course lately I’ve been reading lots of non-monosexual books, some of which have become close to my heart. But I’ve also realized that a lot of my favourite queer titles were bi all along, I just wasn’t paying enough attention! So, here are my personal favourite books featuring and/or by bisexual women. Don’t fret if something you love isn’t on this list—I haven’t had time to read everything yet, so please let me know what bi book I should read next!
My Education – Susan Choi
This book won the latest Lambda Literary award in the bisexual category, but it’s not why I love it, despite it NEVER using the word bisexual to describe either of its lead female characters. It’s got juicy, exquisite, wordy writing that kind of sounds like it’s 19th century and it’s a student/professor affair made anew, set in an academic context which is described affectionately yet critically. Choi pays really close attention to what her characters are doing and saying. A lot of this description of both mundane and profound events is strikingly beautiful and wise. Like here:
My youth was the most stubborn, peremptory part of myself. In my most relaxed moments, it governed my being. It pricked up its ears at the banter of eighteen-year-olds on the street. It frankly examined their bodies. It did not know its place: that my youth governed me with such ease didn’t mean I was young. It meant I was divided as if housing a stowaway soul, rife with itches and yens which demanded a stern vigilance. I didn’t live thoughtlessly in my flesh anymore. My body had not, in its flesh, fundamentally changed quite so much as it now could intuit the change that would only be dodged by an untimely death, and to know both those bodies at once, the youthful, and the old, was to me the quintessence of being middle-aged. Now I saw all my selves, even those that did not yet exist, and the task was remembering which I presented to others.
The Last Nude – Avery Ellis
Both of the women featured in The Last Nude are bisexual, although you don’t often see the book described as such. This historical novel, set in Paris in the decadent 1920s period between the two world wars, is an easy book to sink into and love. From the first unassuming sentence (“I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred francs”), The Last Nude is captivating and delightful. The writing is exquisite; the characterization rich; and the setting wonderfully and lovingly rendered in superb detail. It’s a fascinating look into the queer smoky Bohemian world of artists through the eyes of Rafaela Fano, an Italian-American Jew who is also experiencing it for the first time. Rafaela (her actual last name isn’t known) is a real historical person about whom we don’t know much except she was Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka’s model and inspiration for some of her most arresting works, including La Belle Rafaela, which graces the cover of the novel. One of my favourite parts about the book is how it charts Rafaela’s (re)discovery of her body and her sexuality:
Ever since my sixteenth birthday, my body had felt like a coin in an unfamiliar currency: small, shiny, and heavy, obviously of value to somebody, but not to me… My body felt coincidental to me—I could just as easily be a tree, a stone, a gust of wind. For so long, I still felt like the ten-year-old me, skinny as a last wafer of soap, needling through Washington Square on her way to Baxter Street. But my months with Tamara had worn away the lonely old questions and replaced them with a greed of my own: my body was just a fact, this night, a kind of euphoria. I coincided with it, and with the dancing crowd. Throbbing with the horns and drums, we formed a waterfall passing over a light, each of us a drop, a spark, bright, gone. The music danced us, and I knew it wouldn’t last, this body I’d learnt to love.
Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution – Shiri Eisner
It’s hard to summarize my feelings about this book in a short space, and they are definitely complicated, but Notes for a Bisexual Revolution is the best scholarly look at bisexuality I’ve read. I feel like it’s a great first read on feminism as well as a primer on important feminist and queer terms. Eisner clearly and succinctly deals with a ton of stereotypes about bi people, gay/straight-washing of bis, and the fact that bisexuality is often accused of ‘reinforcing the gender binary’ and otherwise contributing to the dominant social order. She also writes—to varying levels of success— about intersections between bisexual activism with trans, anti-racist, feminist, and anarchist thought. What I really loved about Notes for a Bisexual Revolution is that it put into words a lot of things I had felt and thought about bisexuality and biphobia (as a lesbian and then bi-identified woman) but had never taken the time to analyze. For example, she looks at the two myths of “everyone is really bisexual” and “bisexuality doesn’t exist” as two sides of the same coin: monosexist discourse trying to deny the legitimacy and uniqueness of bisexuality. Although I disagreed with a portion of this book, it certainly got me thinking a lot about my experiences with bisexuality and biphobia. It’s a reassuring book in a lot of ways, reassuring in the way Eisner calls Ochs’s definition of bisexuality: that it’s okay to be messy and complicated—in fact, that that’s something to be valued rather than apologized for.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me – Ellen Forney
Bisexual cartoonist Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir about her bipolar disorder is truly an amazing, beautiful book. Her sexuality doesn’t play a huge part in the narrative, but then again, it’s always refreshing to read about a queer character whose life obstacles are not related to their queerness. I loved the way that Forney looks at the intersections between art and madness and the stereotype of the mad artist that seems to have come to life in her own existence. Can you imagine a psychiatrist telling you that what you thought of as your personality is actually a mental illness? The black-and-white drawings are crisp and clear but emotional and hard-hitting. It’s funny, smart, thought-provoking, and miserable at times, but never devoid of hope. I really loved this book.
The Salt Roads – Nalo Hopkinson
The Salt Roads is historical fiction like The Last Nude, but it’s also many other fictional things: spiritual, fantastical, and magical. I love how The Salt Roads takes on the epic task of re-crafting space for historical bisexual/queer black women and takes it even farther than you thought it could be taken. Stretching over three continents and ranging from the 4th century to the 19th, this ambitious novel tells the story of Mer, who is a loving but hard woman and a doctor, midwife, and plantation slave in mid 18th century Saint Domingue (Haiti). Her closest support is another woman, Tipingee, with whom she was “sisters before Tipingee’s blood came; wives to each other after, even when they had had husbands.” The other non-monosexual character is Jeanne Duval, a biracial woman originally from Haiti living in Paris; she was the real life long-term lover and muse of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire. Both women are searching for freedom in different ways and their journeys (along with a re-imagined Saint Mary of Egypt) are really a joy to read.
How do I know anything? How is it that my arms stretched out in front of me are so pale? How do I even know that they should be brown like riverbank mud, as they were when I was many goddesses with many worshippers, ruling in lands on the other side of a great, salty ocean? I used to be many, but now we are one, all squeezed together, many necks in one coffle.
Adaptation – Malinda Lo
I’m pretty sure this book is going to go down in history as the best bi sci-fi (or should that be sci-fi bi?) young adult book ever. It’s a tense, roller-coaster ride kind of book that keeps you up late at night wondering what is going to happen next. Not only are there government conspiracies, aliens, and X-Files type stuff happening, there’s also a bisexual love triangle! What more could you want in a book? Oh, great writing about teenagers kissing? A racially diverse cast of characters? Cliff-hanger endings? Characters openly and explicitly talking about bisexuality? Oh wait, this book has all of that too!
Kissing Amber was like falling into the sea: her body surrendered to the pull of the tide, buoyed by the saltwater, every breath tasting like the ocean. Reese lost all sense of where the surface was. All there was, was this. Amber’s lips, her tongue, her hands stroking back Reese’s hair, curling around her head and holding her steady.
Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women – Edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre
This is a vast, encompassing anthology that has every kind of coming out story that you’ve never heard. Dear John was so important for me as someone who’s never identified with the “I’ve always known”, or the “I was a gender non-conforming kid so it figures”, or the “I fell in love with a girl when I was five” stories. It was so validating to read a book where many of the stories really felt like they could actually be about me! There’s a huge range of (white, middle-class) experience in this book. There are women who were never happy with men. There are women who’ve only really been attracted to one woman. There are women in this book who married men in good faith, and were completely blindsided by their later (sometimes exclusive) attraction to women. There are some women who open up their relationships with men to date women. There’s even one woman in here who stays married to her husband after coming out as a lesbian. There are women who identify as bi, lesbian, queer, and some who are uncomfortable labelling or naming their sexualities at all. There is one woman who falls in love with a woman for the first time at age sixty-nine. Sixty-nine!! It was awesome to see women questioning conventional understandings of sexual orientation—that model that’s built for gay men that just doesn’t seem to do a lot of LBQ women justice.
Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall
This Torontonian novel about two bi cis women and a straight trans guy is just plain old awesome. It’s a love triangle, or more precisely square, eerily involving fictional versions of pretty much everyone I ever knew in my early to mid twenties (i.e., white, bike-riding, middle-class, artsy, educated, FAAB queers). It’s a hilarious novel, irreverent and dark and cynical in just the right places, and heartfelt when you need a little bit of that. Whittall knows who and what she is talking about and you won’t read another book about this specific generation of queers that gets them and puts it into wittier words than Whittall. One of my favourite quotations comes from Amy, a spoiled semi-rich filmmaker who spends a lot of money to look broke and artsy, right after her break-up:
I could feel Desperation’s presence in the room, hanging around me like a stifling, wet wool sweater. I was not going to let that bitch get the better of me.
This, and many other snippets of wisdom, made me laugh out loud, and the fact that both Amy and Billy (the other girl) are bisexual made Holding Still a really gratifying read me. It was awesome to see non-monosexual women who were part of a queer scene and navigating it. Billy thinking to herself “Quick, say something that indicates you also date boys,” after talking about her ex Maria to her current interest Josh, is exactly the kind of everyday being bi stuff that I don’t see enough of in queer fiction!
The Chronology of Water – Lidia Yuknavitch
The synopsis on the inside cover declares, “This is not your mother’s memoir.” I’m not really sure what exactly your mother’s memoir would be like, but it’s true that Yuknavitch’s book is not for the faint of heart, both in terms of content and style. Chronology opens, for example, with this: “The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses…” Yuknavitch does not hold back, sharing intimate details about, most of all, her body: drug use, child birth, destructive relationships, abuse, swimming, and a lot of sex (with women and men). What I really enjoyed was how Yuknavitch handled such so-called scandalous material: as if it were ordinary. She is adamant that this is a feminist work, that it’s not the ‘right’ kind of book about overcoming addiction or sexual abuse, that it opposes “the tyranny of culture telling women who they should be.” In the same way that Yuknavitch refuses conventions as regards the memoir’s content, she slashes any stylistic and narrative expectations you might have and spins them around, backwards, forwards, and backwards again. While she sometimes writes a scene in a straightforward, beginning-to-end-style, she will then begin the next chapter by telling you that wasn’t exactly how it happened. No matter what style, Yuknavitch is unquestionably an extremely talented wordsmith. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
My first book came out of me in a great gushing return of the repressed. Like a blood clot had loosened. My hands frenzied. Words from my whole body, my entire life, or the lives of women and girls whose stories got stuck in their throats came gushing out. Nothing could have stopped the stories coming out of me. Even though my hands and arms and face hurt—bruised and cut from falling from a train—or a marriage—or a self in the night—I wrote story after story. There was no inside out. There were words and there was my body, and I could see through my own skin. I wrote my guts out. Until it was a book. Until my very skin made screamsong.
Indigo Springs – A.M. Dellamonica
I’m really surprised this book isn’t more well known and that it took me so long to find it! It’s a fantastic fantasy novel featuring a bisexual protagonist and innovative world-building. Indigo Springs takes on the old idea that magic has unexpected and perilous consequences and spins it into a kind of magical apocalypse, bringing it to life in small-town Astrid’s world. Told in two contrasting narratives, one that takes place after the shit hits the fan so to speak, and the other explaining how everything got so bad, the novel manages to sustain your suspense and hope that the trio (Astrid, her best friend/long-term crush, and ex-step-brother who’s in love with her) will prevent the catastrophe you already know has happened. Although some of the characters are unlikable, I found them fascinating and really realistic; Sahara, Astrid’s best friend, for example, is the kind of self-serving person whose charismatic appeal is undeniable. And Jack, the step-brother, is the kind of nice guy who might let you walk all over him and that’s why you don’t like him as much as you should. The characters are big and flawed and complex. I also really liked Dellamonica’s snappy, no-nonsense prose. Oh yeah, and there’s an enormous river of blue gooey magic called vitagua underneath the fireplace in the house Astrid has inherited that has been confined to the cold underworld for too long and is dying to get out into the world, and into people’s veins.