Relevant background info: my mom is also not straight, so our house was well stocked with lesbian poetry & activist books & zines & music from the ’70s/’80s. So around the time I was putting words to my own queerness & reaching out to find peers on livejournal & the like (circa 2002?), I also sorta noticed I was living in a lil recent queer history archive of sorts, with a curator who had a living memory of the time it reflected, & was very willing to talk warmly about it without letting me romanticize the past simply because it looked cool in pictures & had that old book smell. Along with never really having to come out in the traditional sense, this was one of the great gifts of growing up second gen queer.
Anyway, the first book I intentionally latched onto from somewhere other than my home bookshelves that really spoke to my own experience (or what I wanted my experience to be) was Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. Also one of very few YA books I read as a teen, because I was pretty desperate to impress adults with my lit snobbery.
a) Angels In America, by Tony Kushner: So, this is not so much a book as it is 2 plays. The other reason I maybe didn’t read so much YA when I was a teen is because I was too busy reading & rereading the same handful of plays, trying to unlock their secrets. I wanted to be a playwright more than anything. I definitely spent more time with this than any other text, maybe ever, & I can still pick up my raggedy paperback copy & flip it open to a random page & feel just as wrecked by those characters as when I was 17.
c) Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters: You know when a book turns your sense-memory up so high that a decade later you find yourself remembering really random bits not just of the book, but of completely inconsequential things that happened when you were reading it, like lying in your pink bathtub while the wind rattled every window in your apartment, or your religious studies professor walking into the laundromat? That maybe doesn’t tell people a lot about this really excellent book that is, indeed, queer historical fiction with more makeouts & less death…but it’s really inextricable to my love of this book that it comes with all these full sensory snapshots of life in Sackville, NB at the time I was reading it.
d) Sister Mischief, by Laura Goode: This is such an underrated gem of a YA. It has ALL THE THINGS! Whip smart lesbian Jewish protag! All-girl rap crew who are also one of the most compelling friend groups I’ve ever met in a book! Actual raps on the page that don’t suck even tho obviously that is not the ideal location for raps! Awesome but also realistically fraught young love! Nuanced portrayals of families, including adults! Exploration of what it means to be not white &/or straight &/or Christian in a place that wants to treat those identities as neutral, & what it means to have all those identities & realise it’s super messed up to treat those things as neutral! & gorgeous writing to boot!
e) Aaaah crap last one. Eeny meeny miny…If I Could Be Your Girl, by Meredith Russo. It usually feels dodgy to put anything I read so recently on a list of favs, because what if time happens & I don’t care any more? But it’s pretty tough to argue that this book isn’t hugely important in the grand scheme of YA, on top of being just plain great. A trans girl written (so beautifully) by a trans woman who gets her happy ending without the text denying any of the very real obstacles & dangers trans kids face. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg stuff everybody who hasn’t even read this book yet already knows about it. It delivers all that, plus excellent prose & a supporting cast I could spend like six books with.
Empress remains my most uncanny experience of picking up a book & realising it contained a life that was roughly within my reach: a bunch of nerds & theatre dorks being pals & having tension, sexual & otherwise, in all kinds of directions, being sometimes realistically bad at relationships, but also realistically able to mend them. I also lucked out that the first f/f romance I plucked off the shelf had an #ownvoices bi protag whose bi-ness wasn’t stigmatised or wrapped up in issues of unfaithfulness or really made that big a deal of at all, just allowed to exist as a neutral fact. How often does THAT happen? I think even then I knew it was pretty special. After I read the library copy at least twice, I wrote Sara Ryan a fairly unhinged fan email at 2AM, touching not only on my favourite parts of her book, but also a number of other things Teen Emmet was obsessed with at the time, including Beatles conspiracy theories, because…I wanted her to know me, or something? Instead of a restraining order, she sent me a free comic book about my favourite character. So yeah, eternally special. If I ever find the book that does that for Adult Emmet, that’ll be next level (although I hope I now have the restraint not to foist my Paul Is Dead agenda onto an unsuspecting author).
Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?
Um, all the ones I want to write, I guess. Well, not quite. There are those book ideas you know you’ve got to be the one to write if they’re going to get written…& then there are the ones you keep on the back burner for years hoping somebody else will beat you to it so you can have the unadulterated pleasure of reading them. Ugh, I have so many of the latter I’m going to be stalling on until the day I die, I’m sure.
One thing I’m always on the hunt for is complex depictions of queer people of faith. I had a somewhat frustrating experience trying to sell my first novel, which definitely looked too closely at sexuality for the Christian market, & maybe looked too closely at Christianity for the secular market. But maybe my book just wasn’t that good, & books like this are totally being published & I’m missing them! If anybody out there has recs…@ me!
How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?
Well, I’m broke, so there’s that. I live in a small town, which is my preferred geographic status, but it means having a small, single branch library. We have great librarians who probably prioritize diverse reads more so than most libraries serving small, relatively homogenous populations, but the resources just can’t be as vast as a huge city library system. So right now I just can’t afford to be caught up with all the new releases everybody’s gushing about, & queer books especially can take a while to track down.
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?
Like I say, it’s difficult for me to feel caught up with the rest of book twitter. Like, I’m in it; I’m following the conversation, but I’m often out of synch. Which is sort of okay. I like being kind of private about my reading. Maybe it’s a holdover from being that teen who was too anxious about having adult approval on my book choices to be seen with YA. IDGAF if anybody thinks I’m reading trash now, but I’m very selective about when & with whom I discuss my beloved trash. Having my doofy opinions out there on goodreads, eternally findable, makes me so uncomfortable. I feel bad, because I know online reviews really help writers — and readers! I’m more comfortable doing quick takes on twitter, where you don’t have the pressure of star ratings and whatnot. I know that’s not as useful though, partly because it’s a little more ephemeral. I try to make up for it with word of mouth. Also maybe less good, but a cool thing about it is that most of my IRL circles aren’t really YA readers, which is the category I’m most likely to rec from these days. I’ve gotten some unexpected people into some unexpected books, & that’s a good feeling.
Thank you Emmet for your fun thoughtful answers! The story about writing Sara Ryan is so awesome!
Interview with a Queer Reader is a series where I talk to everyday LGBTQ2IA+ readers just like you about all the queer book things. If you’re interested in participating, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can do the interview via email, Skype, or in person if you’re in the Vancouver area. Happy queer reading!