Interview with a Queer Reader: Al Talks the Legacy of DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR, Lesbian Mysteries, Tamora Pierce, and more!

Al Kornelsen is a queer, demi-romantic, non-binary person living on Vancouver Island. They’re a piano accompanist who plays for musicals, choirs, singers, and church services, a piano teacher, and they also work at a coffee shop on the side. Al has been a voracious consumer of all kind of queer culture since high school, particularly books and film, but also music. (They recently finished graduate studies where they wrote their thesis on riot grrrl music in lesbian film. Woot.) Al loves reading fantasy, science fiction, regular old novels —(what is the genre name for these?)—, and mysteries; plus, they have a penchant for reading (skimming?) cookbooks from the library.

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Keep reading to learn more about which romantic stories this mostly aromantic reader likes, great lesbian mysteries, the amazing legacy of Alison Bechdel’s ground-breaking lesbian comic series Dykes to Watch Out For, Tamora Pierce, Nicola Griffith’s mystery novel Always and how she never directs violence at queer characters because of their gender or sexuality, 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?)

I’m not sure what the very first LGBTQ2IA+ book I read was, though I can picture the cover in my mind and I have the impression in my head that it wasn’t a very uplifting story. After that though, I started devouring all the queer YA books I could get my hands on. Julie Anne Peters’s Keeping You a Secret figured high on the list, and I also remember reading Annie on My Mind. I quickly started delving into the “grown-up” fiction and read a lot of the “classics” – Rubyfruit Jungle, Curious Wine, Desert of the Heart, The Color Purple, etc., all of which I love and have read multiple times.

What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?

These books are all books that I own and that I have read over and over and over, because they’re fun and a bit escapist.

As a largely aromantic person who is a sucker for romantic stories, my go to book is 100% Emma Donoghue’s Landing. It’s just so cute and relatable (to a white settler Canadian with a Christian upbringing anyways) and familiar and re-readable.

My other favourite book is Nicola Griffith’s Always. After devouring most of the “regular” lesbian/queer fiction at my library, I discovered the lesbian mystery genre, which is still one of my favourite things to read today – generally not too dark, a bit goofy, and a touch romantic. Authors like Katherine V. Forrest, Claire McNab, Val McDermid (nowadays she writes mainstream scary mysteries, but back in the 80s and early 90s she wrote a series of lighter lesbian mysteries), and Alma Fritchley are great, but Always is definitely my favourite, I think because it’s a more serious than most of the genre without getting into the kind of stories that will keep you up at night. The story alternates between the main character teaching a weekly self-defence course to a group of women in the past, and the main character in the present trying to solve a mystery on a movie set. Nicola Griffith’s writing is just amazing to read, her characters are interesting and engaging, and (as she recently wrote on her blog) the violence in her stories is never directed at characters because they are LGBTQ2IA+.

Next on my list is Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress. This book is a bit of a side-step from LGBTQ2IA+ books “proper,” but as a life-long Tamora Pierce fan, this was the first time one of her characters was written as explicitly queer and I’m still psyched about this book (there was some subtextual queerness in earlier books but I’m not good at picking up subtext so…). This book is a continuation of Pierce’s Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens quartets, but in this one the four main characters are now young adults who have reunited after being apart for a couple of years. One of the four characters, Daja, a mage whose magic manifests through metal-working (she was obviously always my favourite if only for having this amazing skill/talent), falls in love for the first time (with a woman!), which threatens to break up the group again. The whole thing is a sweet side note to a great main plot.

Anything by Ivan E. Coyote. Their books are just so inspiring, because they tend to see the good in almost everyone, and because they inspire trust and hope, even when their stories talk about and embrace tough situations. I’m not sure which to recommend specifically, so I’ll go for The Slow Fix and Missed Her since they’re on my bookshelf.

Finally, Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, but I’ll talk about that in the next section.

All of these books were just incredibly affirming to me as a young queer person, and I still love them 10 years later as a less young queer person.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?

I think I see my experiences most represented in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comics, which are all compiled in The Essential Dykes to Watch Our For. It’s so rare to see books that represent such a wide variety of LGBTQ2IA+ characters and I can identify with many of the characters in different ways – Clarice’s and Toni’s struggle to balance their careers with their values, Ginger and Sydney’s academic lives, Lois’s exploration of gender, Sparrow’s negotiation of being a queer woman in a relationship with a cis man. On the whole, though the characters don’t exactly match the people in my life, they do seem similar to my friend group and to me in many ways and provide affirmation for many of the different ways LGBTQ2IA+ people live and exist in the world.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?

I’m not sure that I would say that these books don’t exist yet, but, I’d love to read more books about non-binary characters (and other trans characters) and polyamorous/ethically non-monogamous characters (and families built around these relationships), both of which I think these are underrepresented in fiction. I’d also love to read a more contemporary version of the lesbian mystery genre, that might represent a more diverse array of LGBTQ2IA+ characters, particularly trans people and people of colour (ideally with a protagonist who isn’t a white cisgender woman), and that might be a bit more intersectional in its approach.

How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?

The search box on the public library website is my friend! However, I also find a lot of book suggestions on this blog or Autostraddle and sometimes through friends.

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?

I wouldn’t say that I’m involved in any LGBTQ2IA+ reading communities, but whenever I meet another queer who likes to read I’m all about finding new books to read and suggesting books I think they might like.

Thanks for sharing with us Al! You talking about Dykes to Watch Out For has made me really want to re-read that series. It’s one of my absolute favourites too. Reading it is like visiting old friends.

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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