Forward, the first graphic novel by Lisa Maas, is a great reminder of the great work that can be made when authors and artists represent what they know intimately. Set in Victoria, it’s a story about two women both trying to move ahead in their lives in different ways. The first is Rayanne, the kind of woman whose life revolves around her work (and her cat). Although it was years earlier, she’s never been able to open herself up again after the horrible way her last relationship ended. She lives a carefully controlled, regimented life, where her crushes on women only ever go further in her imagination. Ali is also having trouble moving forward (get that reference to the title?), but from very different circumstances: she is still grieving the death of her wife from cancer a year earlier.
Are these two going to meet each other? Well, of course they are. And in that way, this story is very much a romance. But like the best romance narratives, it’s also just as much about the individual journeys of each person as it is about their growing relationship. It’s a second chance love story of two people who didn’t imagine that they would ever get another chance. So while it is definitely a romance, it might be a little sadder and/or have more crying than the last romance you read. (I don’t know, maybe your romance tropetonite is stories about widows and other sad people finding new love and you read romances like this all the time). But while Forward is sad in many parts, it’s also sexy and, ultimately, hopeful. So there’s that.
Back to the idea that I opened with: the authenticity of reading a book about a sub-culture by someone who clearly knows it so well, in a way of course that no outsider could ever know it. Forward felt soooo authentic to white west coast middle age lesbian culture. I think only an author representing their own culture could do this. Wow. I don’t think I’ve read any other book that hits the good and the bad so on the nose.
I’m almost not even sure what to describe since there were so many details in this book that I didn’t realize were a part of that specific subculture until I saw them here and felt so much recognition. For one, there is a hella lot of lesbian processing in Forward. There’s even some hippie-tinged processing with a psychic! There are cats, Indigo Girls, and more than one of those awkward lesbian dating scenarios where both women obviously like each other but neither of them makes a move. Sigh. Almost all the queer ladies have short hair, except one who has kind of a mullet!? It was really great to see multiple women presenting on the masculine end of the gender spectrum, especially when you literally get to see them drawn in a graphic novel!
The world in Forward was so recognizable to me. Although they’re too fairly dissimilar books, Forward strangely reminded me a lot of Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still for as Long as Possible, in the way that it paints such an insider picture of a particular kind of queer culture that I had never seen depicted in fiction before.
And yeah, there isn’t really a focus on them, but some not-so-great aspects of this lesbian subculture are in the book too. The two ones that stand out the most to me are that almost everyone is white and all the characters use the word lesbian to describe any woman who might be or is attracted to women, as if bisexual women don’t exist. For the record, both of those things are true to my experiences in communities like this, so I’m not even sure if those are criticisms (but it sure would be nice to have some more inclusion!).
To be honest, it’s a bit hard for me to separate my experience of this book from my personal history in communities like the one represented in Forward: it made me both sad that I’m not a part of that lesbian culture anymore and also kind of mad at the norms of biphobia and racism of that culture (biphobia being one of the things that drove me away). It’s weird that the book is bringing up these things, because Forward is not about those issues at all. It’s a story about love and grief set in this context so naturally and elegantly. I know there will be many readers who will seem themselves and their communities in Forward, and for any queer person that is such a rare and beautiful thing. I guess what I’m saying is that for me that feeling of familiarity was a little more complicated. Just know that if you’re a bi woman and/or a woman of colour who’s felt excluded from lesbian communities, this book may stir up some of those feelings like it did for me!
More stirred up feelings: Forward made me really nostalgic for the time when I lived in Victoria. This is such a Victoria book! There were a few scenes where I thought, aha! I know exactly where those characters are taking a walk! And, I know restaurants exactly like the one in downtown Victoria where Rayanne and Ali have their first date. Fiction set in Victoria is pretty rare, let alone queer fiction, so it was really cool to get to see that beautiful place in a graphic novel. I think anyone who has a soft spot for Victoria like I do is going to love that aspect of the book.
Some of you are maybe wondering, but what about the art? Isn’t this a graphic novel? It is, indeed! I didn’t love the art, unfortunately. It reminded me of Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, both in the actual style and also that I liked the story a lot and wished I liked the art more. The colour is subdued, with a water-colour kind of feel. (Is it actually watercolour? I don’t know since I don’t know anything about art!). I felt like the people’s faces looked too similar to each other—it’s probably a bad sign if I’m glad so-and-so and so-and-so have different colour hair because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. I did, however, really like a few of the panels where Maas was showing the passage of time. Like this one:
Has anyone else read Forward? I haven’t heard much buzz around it and I would love to know thoughts and reactions from other readers. Some of my reservations related to personal experience aside, I really enjoyed this book and felt like it was a bit different from everything else I’ve been reading lately.