June’s queer reader is Daniel Shank Cruz! He grew up in New York City and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a Mennonite family. It was because of his Mennonite background that he first got into reading Canadian literature through reading Mennonite writers, many of whom (e.g., Miriam Toews, Di Brandt, Rudy Wiebe) are Canadian. He teaches English at a college in upstate New York, where his primary research area is Mennonite literature, especially queer Mennonite literature. He identifies as bisexual, but tends to prefer the term queer for himself because he worries about how the prefix “bi” implies that there are only two genders. He also likes the openness of queer and how it encompasses his kinky identity as well. He is obsessed with books (especially queer ones and Mennonite ones, but he also reads a fair amount of poetry, sports history, and biography/memoir). He writes an occasional blog post mostly cataloguing his book purchases. Keep reading to hear Daniel talk about trying to find bisexual books, reading queer Mennonite writers, cool tips on how to find new queer books and authors, and more!
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 or did you just happen across it?)
The first LGBTQ2IA+ book I recall reading was Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple in a Literature and Film class my first semester of university. I loved the book, but at the time did not yet realize I was queer, so it had less personal resonance for me than it does now. Frank O’Hara is another queer writer who I happened to read during university, though not specifically because he was queer. It wasn’t until I read Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia in graduate school, though, that it hit me that I could start being more intentional about seeking out queer writing. Kureishi’s book included the first depiction of male bisexuality that I had ever encountered, which was a powerful experience, and I began wondering if there were more such narratives out there.
What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?
Choosing only five favorites is difficult! I’m going to cheat by giving you a list of honorable mentions and noting that my answer to question four would also be on the list 🙂 These are in no particular order:
A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett. This collection of short stories about the trans community (including some trans Mennonites!) gets better every time I read it. I love its unapologetic portrayals of BDSM, and how so many of its characters are book lovers, and how important place is in the stories, which take place across Canada and the U.S. Also, one of the stories, “Portland, Oregon,” is the best piece of literature about a cat ever.
The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany. This novel was the first book I ever read that had a homeless person as a main character. I find Delany’s insistence on depicting those on the margins of society incredibly moving and necessary. I don’t think a book has ever made me think more than this one does. I love all of Delany’s work (he writes fiction, literary theory, and memoir), and The Mad Man is my favorite of his books because it does a good job of mixing a compelling narrative with queer theoretical principles; it is literature as theory.
Lost Boi by Sassafras Lowrey (which is, incidentally, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver). It’s hard to put into words how amazing this novel, which is a retelling of Peter Pan, is. It is the best fictional portrayal of BDSM I’ve ever read because it treats BDSM as a part of everyday life rather than as something exotic or taboo. It is also heartbreaking; I’m not sure if I’ve ever read another book that turned me on and made me cry at the same time.
Nevada by Imogen Binnie. This is the great trans road trip novel. The first half of it takes place in New York City and is one of the most beautiful portrayals of that space that I have encountered, especially in its depictions of essential elements of twenty-something NYC food culture: amazing pizza, delicious bagels, and kick-ass brunches that you can’t really afford but need for your soul anyway. I also love that the main character works at my favorite bookstore, The Strand (even though she kind of hates it).
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. A feminist classic that always makes me laugh and which also does a good job of depicting sex work unapologetically (something that A Safe Girl to Love does, too). It also takes place mostly in NYC, something that I just realized is shared in common by all five of these books.
Other books that were very close to making the list include Jan Guenther Braun’s Somewhere Else, Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?
When I first read Stephen Beachy’s novel boneyard [sic], which is about an Amish teenager who’s into bondage, I could only read it in small doses because it felt so close to my own self that it was too uncanny for my body to handle: it literally (and yes, I mean literally, not figuratively) made me feel like I was having a heart attack, or at least what I imagine a heart attack would feel like. It felt like it was written specifically for me, and I value it because it shows me that I am not alone as a queer Mennonite (the Amish are similar to Mennonites; they broke off from the Mennonites in 1693). I also love the book because it employs a crazy amount of metafiction (fiction about fiction), which is one of my favorite literary tropes.
Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?
There are still way too few depictions of bisexuality in fiction. Even though I’ve been actively seeking out queer literature for the past decade I can only name a handful of texts that do a good job with bi characters (aside from The Color Purple and Buddha of Suburbia, Jessica Penner’s Shaken in the Water, Christina Penner’s [a Canadian] Widows of Hamilton House, and Ana Castillo’s Give It To Me are the ones that I can think of off the top of my head), so I would like to see more bi fiction in general, and especially portrayals of bisexuals who are in settled relationships and thus have to deal with the question of what to do with their attraction to the genders that they are not with. This latter narrative doesn’t exist yet in fiction as far as I know. I would be happy to be corrected on this point if I am wrong!
How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?
As I mention above, it’s difficult finding books with bisexual characters, but in terms of finding good queer literature in general I feel that I am able to do so enough to keep me satisfied. I often find new queer books/authors via word of mouth, whether that is from friends and colleagues or through the bibliographies of the pieces of literary criticism that I read. I am lucky enough to have several friends who are interested in queer literature as writers and/or scholars, and we often pass new finds on to one another. I also find that anthologies of queer writing are helpful: I discovered Nevada after I read a short story by Binnie in an anthology of trans fiction (The Collection, published by Topside Press in 2012). Whenever I go to a conference, my first priority is to go to any queer panels that might be offered, and these also lead to new discoveries as well. I read Lost Boi after hearing Lowrey speak at a conference earlier this year. I also try to follow publishers that publish a lot of queer work (e.g., Duke University Press and the aforementioned Topside Press) on social media so I can keep track of their newest releases. This strategy also works with some individual authors.
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?
As noted above I do have an informal community of other queer readers which I really appreciate. They have had a huge effect on my thinking and on my scholarship. I’m not involved in any formal reading groups, in part because I am a major introvert. However, one of the best classes I ever took was an LGBT Literature course in grad school because everyone was personally invested in the subject, and based on that experience I think it would be enjoyable to be involved in a queer reading group if one existed in my community (which to my knowledge it does not, a lack that does not bother me enough to start one myself, haha). There is a weekly poetry open mic at a local coffeehouse which often includes a number of queer pieces, so there is definitely a queer literary community lurking around when I feel the need for some social interaction.
Thanks for sharing with us Daniel! I have added a few books from this interview to my TBR, as I’m sure lots of other people will be doing as well! I’m looking forward to the day when we have books about bisexuals in settled relationships figuring out how to negotiate their multiple attractions too.