My friend L writes:
Any (well written!) magic realism books with LGTBQ characters? Preferably not YA or NA.
Any books where a queer woman protagonist is a scientist of some kind and that’s not used as a shorthand for her queerness?
Well isn’t that sneaky of you, getting in two questions for the price of one! I think for now let’s deal with LGBTQ magic realist books and I will save queer lady scientists for next time. I’m excited about this question, because magic realism is so fun to read. Also, this is a challenging question for a few reasons: a) there seems to be more queer magic realism in the YA category than others, for some reason and b) defining what is magic realism and what is not is kind of tricky.
So what is magic realism exactly, and how is it different from fantasy and other speculative fiction? Apparently, the term was first applied to visual art that “juxtapose[s] marvellous objects and events with the quotidian aspects of daily life” in 1925 by a German art critic. Who knew! It’s often associated with Latin American fiction, with 100 Years of Solitude by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez being the quintessential example. While the basis of magic realist fiction is, well, realism—what we think of as everyday life and how that is conventionally portrayed in fiction—it is smattered with unexplained bits of magic. Fun! Do I have some exciting suggestions for you.
Because you’re my friend L I know you’ve already read this book, but I have to mention it for the sake of anyone else reading this post: The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie. This novel is phenomenal. It’s so many different things packed into one: mystery, coming out story, historical fiction set in the 1970s, and, of course, a dash of magic. Here the magic is mostly in the form of ghosts, haunting the Delany family who have been ostracized by their community and Church following a traumatic event. That same event has also changed Ava Delaney, “at one time a wild young girl and a brilliant artist,” into the kind of passionless person who doesn’t even enjoy the taste of butter—the brilliant image that opens the story. I highly recommend this Lambda-award winner, which features both queer male and female characters.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf is perhaps an obvious choice, but it’s worth a re-read even if you have already read it, because, well, it’s a work of genius. I wrote my Master’s thesis on it, so I should know. Orlando is playful historical fiction written in the 1920s, about a character who mysteriously and abruptly changes gender in the middle of the book (man to woman) and who lives for hundreds of years, from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. S/he travels the world, walks the streets in drag, falls in love, works; and all this is described in Woolf’s trademark hypnotizingly gorgeous prose. Did you know she wrote this novel for her female lover Vita Sackville-West? That makes this remarkably queer gender-bending book even queerer than it already is.
Coming back to the present century, what about Amber Dawn’s debut novel Sub Rosa? Some might call it fantasy, but it is solidly grounded in the decidedly realist setting of Vancouver’s downtown east-side. Little, the ironically named plucky protagonist, is one of those so-called lost girls whose stories the newspapers tell after it’s too late to save them. Little, however, does not need saving: she is decidedly capable of negotiating her options, no matter how slim they might seem. When Little is initiated into the magical street called Sub Rosa, home to a community of eclectic (female and male) sex workers, she is soon the heroine of her own story. Feminist and queer, Sub Rosa is a killer combination of grit, glitter, and, of course, magic.
When I posed the question of finding LGBTQ magic realism on twitter, Danika at the Lesbrary suggested The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson. Of course! This book is a masterpiece of magic realism, spanning centuries and continents. I love the kind of historical fiction that reimagines and brings women from the past into the spotlight, and Hopkinson does this so well, but she also refuses to stay within the bounds of realist historical fiction. There’s a dash of Caribbean voodoo, fourth century Christian pilgrimages, and smoky visions emerging out of a pot of surprising liquids. It’s a tantalizing, fabulous mix and a moving recreation and celebration of black women’s voices. The book follows three very different women: Mer, a plantation midwife, doctor, and slave in 18th century Haiti, Jeanne Duval, a biracial women living in 19th century Paris, and Saint Mary of Egypt. I love this book!
While searching around for queer magic realism, I found this interesting article (warning: it’s academic and thus a bit dry) about Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees. It had never occurred to me to think of this epic Canadian novel as magic realism, but looking back at it now, it definitely is. It follows the four daughters of an interracial family living in Cape Breton in the early years of the 1900s. There are miracles, ghosts, and just plain old strange occurrences—like the character who inexplicably eats coal—amidst the realist, early 20th century setting. This is a complex, and disturbing book (trigger warning for rape and incest), the kind of book you never forget, and that you’ll never be sorry for reading even though it clocks in at halfway between five and six hundred pages.
I haven’t read Venous Hum by Alberta writer Suzette Mayr but it sounds weird and wonderful and just that side of crazy. It’s published by Arsenal Pulp Press, which is always a recommendation in my view, and the blurb says:
A satire on race, gender, sexual preference and vegetarianism, this is a magic-realist novel that will throw your assumptions of the world and the people who inhabit it out the window. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that announces the end of literary fiction as we know it and the beginning of something entirely new.
It features Lai Fun Kugelheim, who is organizing a 20-year high school reunion with her best friend in the wake of an old classmate’s death. Her lesbian marriage is crumbling, she is having an affair with her bestie’s husband, and her mother is an immigrant vegetarian with an unusual appetite (in other words, she’s a vampire). I can’t believe I own a copy of this book and haven’t read it yet. Shame!
Short story collection Painting Their Portraits in Winter by Myriam Gurba, which just came out this year, looks amazing. It’s a book where “modern sensibilities weave and wind through traditional folktales creating a new kind of magical realism that offers insights into where we come from and where we may be going.” Here’s the description of a few of the stories:
A Mexican grandmother tells creepy yet fascinating ghost stories to her granddaughters as a way to make them sit still (“How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still So That They Can Paint Their Portraits in Winter”). A Polish grandfather spends the night in a Mexican graveyard after a Día de Muertos celebration to discover if ghosts really do consume the food that has been left for them (“Even This Title Is a Ghost”).
I know it has queer content of some sort, because it was submitted to the Lesbrary for review, but I can’t find out what kind just yet. Check out this other hilarious story title: “The time I rewrote the first two pages of The Bell Jar from a melodramatic Chicana perspective and named it The Taco Bell Jar.” Haha. I can’t wait to read this.
Another book I haven’t read that came up in my search is the obvious Things Invisible To See: Gay and Lesbian Tales of Magic Realism edited by Lawrence Schimel. It’s older (published in 1998), and it doesn’t have the best reviews, but it is an anthology of queer magic realism, so that’s got to count for something right? It does include some well-known names such as Sarah Schulman and Lesléa Newman. Give it a shot! At the very least it might be an introduction to a few authors that you will want to read from further.
Finally, I want to highly recommend He Mele a Hilo (A Hilo Song) by Ryka Aoki. It perhaps doesn’t fit your question, because it doesn’t feature LGBT characters except in passing, but it is written by a trans woman (an issue she discusses in the video linked below, actually!). I recently finished reading this book and it was so. damn. good. Check out this video of Aoki reading from the novel, which is set in her native Hawaii, written in Hawaiian Pidgin English, and starring a lovable, diverse set of characters. It was an endlessly heartwarming and endearing read. You really get a feel for everyday Hawaii on the Big Island, peppered with such magical acts as mysterious recoveries from life-threatening illnesses, beautiful spirit women who have been haunting you since childhood, and some character vaguely like Bill Gates but black and who is only recognized by a select few locals. It’s strange and wonderful.
Readers, any other non-YA LGBTQ magic realism to recommend? I feel like there must be more out there by latin@ authors, who I’m not as familiar with.
Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian is a Book Advice Column where you can send me your LGBTQ book related questions and recommendation requests. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian” in the subject.