Estlin McPhee is a writer and collective organizer living on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land in Vancouver. They work with youth and live with cats. For five years, they co-organized REVERB, an anti-oppressive queer reading series. Estlin’s writing can be found online at their website and their infrequent tweets are located at @estmcphee.
Keep reading to hear Estlin talk about LOTS of queer YA, At Swim, Two Boys, queer poetry, Fans of the Impossible Life, Malinda Lo, 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 very first LGBTQ2IA+ book I read was “Hello,” I Lied by M.E. Kerr, which came out in 1997, and which I read probably in 2002. I wasn’t exactly searching for it, except of course I was and just didn’t know that that was what I was looking for. I grew up in a small town with a very small library (which I later worked in as a teenager) and I pretty much read every book on the shelves there, so I initially picked up “Hello,” I Lied because I’d read everything else. Then I promptly read every other M.E. Kerr novel I could find in search of more queer content. Those novels—“Hello,” I Lied, Night Kites, Deliver Us from Evie, along with Nancy Garden’s The Year They Burned the Books and Annie on My Mind—were my initial entry into queer lit, and they were deeply important to me, though very depressing. Alternatively, I sometimes consider Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series the first queer books I ever read when I was just a wee one.
What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?
I’m a big YA reader so most of my favourites are YA, with a few notable exceptions. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan will always hold a special place in my heart because it totally changed the game for queer YA when it came out in 2003. Reviews initially described it as a fantastical utopia because it mostly took place in a town that wasn’t full of deadly homophobia and because it had a happy ending. I had never read a queer book with a happy ending before that one. I was sixteen when Boy Meets Boy came out so that amounts to sixteen years of zero happy queer stories. Ouch.
But my actual favourite LGBTQ2IA+ book is At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill; it’s neither YA nor has a happy ending, but I also read it when I was sixteen and it transformed my world. Writing just opened up for me as a result of reading that book. It’s dense and full of very specific (and sometimes newly invented) Irish dialect and a whole lot of Irish history, which means it can be challenging for parts of the first read but it unfolds a little more with each reading. Reading At Swim, Two Boys is like falling headlong into a landscape that is also a poem that is also a spiritual experience. That’s what it’s like for me, anyway, every time I read it. It’s been quite literally transportive for my life, taking me to places in the world and putting me on courses of study that I wouldn’t have embarked on otherwise.
I also would be remiss to not mention how powerful LGBTQ2IA+ poetry has been in my life. Poetry is a whole different kind of storytelling that I’m grateful for every day. Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise is a book that I basically just carry around with me. I once tweeted how much I liked that book and he tweeted back to say thanks, which essentially made my life.
Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?
I don’t think I’ve read that book yet. The closest thing would be some combo of The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth and Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa, both of which I love very much but aren’t quite my life. I really haven’t read something that feels close to my experience of gender, reflects some other piece of my life, and is a book that I enjoy the experience of reading. But maybe that lack is something that keeps me writing.
Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?
A summer time YA story with queer trans and gender-variant characters who spend most of their time eating ice cream, making art, swimming in the river, redefining friendship, and falling in love. That’s all I ask for! In literature and life.
How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?
I have always been really good at finding LGBTQ2IA+ books in the library or bookstore, which admittedly is fairly easy now that there are Rainbow stickers and Pride booklists and all kinds of online resources to find the gay stuff. But before those things became commonplace, I used to be able to dependably retrieve at least one queer book from the shelves using nothing more than my sixth sense (my homo intuition). Finding ones that I actually want to read is another story, especially now that I’ve been reading queer lit for over fifteen years and have gotten much pickier. I do use a lot of online resources to find books to request at the library—in particular, Malinda Lo’s amazing personal blog and her joint project, Diversity in YA, which is sadly on hiatus now, are my go-to resources for what to read, as well as your fantastic blog. I’m also not above regularly Googling “Queer YA Books” and have found some good results through that.
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 know a lot of LGBTQ2IA+ people and I know a lot of readers; the overlap is luckily pretty strong in my life. I don’t participate in any official reading communities but am part of a loose network of friends who are always trading books back and forth, so I have a lot of opportunities for queer lit conversation, which is great. I also frequently get asked for queer YA recommendations, so I’ve started a living list of my absolute favourites on my website. Some of my friends have been working their way through that list, which is fun for me! I love knowing that they’re reading books I adore and have recommended, with the added bonus of getting to talk to nice people about those books after.
What a wealth of queer YA knowledge! Y’all should definitely check out Estlin’s list, which includes some of my personal favourites too. And don’t miss Estlin’s writing too!