Interview with a Queer Reader: Leora Spitzer talks Queer Jewish Books, Queer Fanfiction, and Still Looking for a Book that is “Yours”

Guess what … interview with a queer reader is back! I owe today’s interviewee Leora a HUGE apology as her amazingly interesting and thoughtful responses to my queer reader questions have been sitting in my email inbox for literally years. One of the upsides to the shitty situation of being laid off is that I’ve had time to go back and dig into the work that I love doing for my blog like this. Unfortunately working (sometimes more than) fulltime at the library leaves me little energy for it—if only I were independently wealthy!

Please enjoy Leora’s answers and chime in with your own in the comments. I’m thinking of reviving this series, at least for the next few months while I am still at home social distancing. Would anyone be interested in being interviewed? Send me an email at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com. Now to introduce Leora—in her own words, actually as she did a fabulous, succinct job:

Leora Spitzer is a queer Jewish bibliophile living in St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a major in Urban Studies and a minor in Drama. It is her ambition to write biographies of badass queer women that few people know about but everyone should.  You can find her on Twitter at @leora_hugs.

[Two notes: 1) this interview concluded in April 2018; 2) it is a bit different than the others as Leora and I had an ongoing email thread that strayed sometimes from the set queer reader interview questions I usually use to structure the interviews.]

Leora Spitzer Picture

Hi Leora!

A little about me to start with: I live in St. Louis. I grew up in the Boston area. I came out officially as bi just about two years ago. Although I’d known since high school at least that I was attracted to women and to men (though I’d always taken attraction to men as a given because, y’know, heteronormativity), it took me a long time to actually name and claim my own queerness. I’ve always been an avid reader, but have only started actively searching out queer content in the last year or so. I’m currently working at a local nonprofit as an Americorps, but my dream is to write biographies of badass (possibly queer) women that few people know about but everybody should.

So the first question I have for you is: 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 specifically or did you just happen across it?)

The first really explicitly queer book I remember reading was a memoir about a gay man living in New York City, closely followed by an anthology by Jewish queer writers. My older sibling had just come out to me (they now identify as queer and genderqueer; at the time they had come out as lesbian) right before spending three months abroad. Eager to have a room of my own, I moved into their room while they were gone and quickly discovered their not-so-well hidden stash of queer books and proceeded to read them all. So while I wasn’t exactly searching for queer books, it also was not a coincidence that I found it. At the time I thought of it as trying to understand my sibling better.

About a year later, my first girlfriend gave me Annie on my Mind while we were closeted in high school together, and I remember very much having a crush on Annie and crying through a bunch of it, but I didn’t make any real effort to find more books like it, nor did I really think of it as “my” story in any way, even though it very much was in many ways.

The first queer book I remember “just happening across” was The Color Purple. I knew almost nothing about it going in, just that it was African-American and had won a Pulitzer prize, which was enough for me start it and barely enough to get me to push through the brutal first few pages. I remember second-guessing myself towards the beginning, when Celie is first fascinated by Shug, and wondering if I was reading too much into it. I was really delighted to discover later in the book that I had not been misinterpreting it after all and it actually was hella queer.

Have you seen patterns in what people’s first queer books are? I’m wondering what classics I may have missed out on…

I haven’t noticed a pattern of first books (yet, anyway). It seems all over the map! Maybe because some people are intentionally seeking out queer books when they first read them and others stumble upon them so that leads you to different books. I think it makes a difference how old you are too! Someone said a Malinda Lo book was their first, and when I was coming out Malinda Lo hadn’t written any books yet!

There are definitely books that come up as favourites frequently, some of which you mentioned (Annie on My Mind, The Color Purple). I only read The Color Purple last year if you can believe it! Other ones that have come up in more than one interview are Kushiel’s Dart, Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress, Alison Bechdel’s stuff (her memoir Fun Home and the Dykes to Watch Out For comics) and Nevada by Imogen Binnie (which seems especially important for trans readers).

What are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books? Do they overlap with any of the first queer books you read? I have noticed that some do for many people. It’s like the first queer books they read always hold a special place in their hearts.

Fascinating. I read all the Kushiel’s Legacy books in the last several months and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but in terms of actual queer content, I liked Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia and Saints Astray much better, especially Saints Astray, which features a joyous duo of queer ladies kicking ass while being very much in love. Saints Astray probably makes the shortlist of favorite queer books because while there is plenty of plot-related angst, their relationship is a source of so much joy.

Ivan Coyote’s story collection Missed Her is excellent in its entirety, but it has one short piece, “Hats Off” that is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. It opens, “To all the beautiful, kick-ass, fierce, and full-bodied femmes out there, I would like to extend my thanks to you.” I started crying the first time I read it, well before I came out, because it was the first time that I’d ever felt really seen in my own femme queerness. At the time, I was still reluctant to claim any label further than “mostly straight” because I thought I was too femme and too attracted to men to really qualify as queer, but even when I had trouble recognizing myself, it felt in that piece that Ivan recognized me. I’ve got it bookmarked on the shelf next to my bed where I can read it whenever I am feeling invisible or doubting my place in the queer community. I think I would have loved it no matter when I came across it, but it definitely has a special place in my heart as one of my very first queer books and certainly the first one that I felt was talking about and celebrating me.

Beyond the Pale, by Elana Dykewomon, is another favorite. It tells the story of a bunch of queer Jewish women in the early twentieth century, from pogroms in Europe to working in sweatshops and union protests in New York City. More than any other book I’ve read, it feels like the story of my ancestors. It does have one unfortunate scene with a trans woman that is rather transphobic, which is really frustrating and infuriating in a book that is otherwise so excellent.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the Elemental Logic series. It was super fun to have all the things I love about high fantasy (adventure, brilliant worldbuilding, intrigue, compelling character arcs, magic, gorgeous scenery, struggles with the essential nature of humanity, etc) and also a world where it wasn’t “queer” to be queer, where people of all different backgrounds and classes were in LGBTQ2IA+ relationships by the standards of our world and nobody looked twice.

Ooh, great choices! Ivan Coyote was a really important queer writer for me too when I was first coming out. I remember going to one of their live storytelling events at UVic when I was an undergrad student there and not out yet and being so terrified (I went by myself!) but also so so excited to be listening to their queer stories in the company of other queer people. Ivan’s femme appreciation pieces are especially lovely. It’s so nice to hear what a profound effect that one piece had on you. ❤

I read Beyond the Pale when I was a baby queer too! I remember liking it but also being embarrassed to be carrying around a book whose author’s last name was “Dykewomon.” I guess she wasn’t thinking of scared young people carrying her book around when she chose that name to put on the cover. It reminds me of hearing Imogen Binnie talk about naming her novel Nevada and how important it was for her to have a title that didn’t out the book as trans so trans readers could read it in public, ask for it, etc. without outing themselves.

I haven’t read the Elemental Logic series myself but I have heard lots of good things. So many books, so little time. I wish it were true that librarians got to read all day at work.

So you appreciated Ivan Coyote’s book as a celebration of femmes but is there a book (by a femme or not) that you feel best reflects your own experiences or speaks to you the most as a femme, as a bi person, etc?

Wow! I’d love to hear Ivan live. That sounds amazing.

I hadn’t really thought about safe titles but it makes a lot of sense. I’ll keep it in mind if I ever get around to actually writing one of the several queer books I want to write someday…

I wish I had a nice long list to give you, but honestly I’ve read very few books that I actually felt reflected my experiences as bi or femme. I’d love to find more. Vow of Celibacy by Erin Judge comes to mind. I was really dubious about it at first because of the title (I’m not a fan of celibacy) but it turned out to be really fun. In particular, the sections about the main character’s sexual awakening and discovering the joy of flirting and sleeping with men and women really resonated with me.

But I’ve been racking my brains, and though I’ve read a handful of fantasy novels, biographies, and memoirs with bi characters, none of them reflected my own experiences particularly. The fantasy characters are in such a different cultural context that while I appreciate them and their love stories, they aren’t like mine at all, and I haven’t found any biographies or memoirs that echoed my own history very much.

I’ve only recently actively started looking for queer books at all, but I do wish I’d had even one example of bi characters in my books in middle or high school, and I could really use some more now. I just want a book set in the modern United States where a bi character genuinely engages with the cultural norms around her relationships with honesty and without too much angst, and she wears rainbows and flirts with everyone (or not) and never cuts her hair. (My mom and brother have both suggested that I just date men because it’s easier and I won’t have to deal with homophobia that way, but I actually prefer dating women because I don’t have to deal with toxic masculinity that way, and I’d love to see a character deal with all those different expectations).

So to answer your question, I guess I’m still looking for a book that is really “mine”.

Ivan is so great live! I know they do travel quite a bit doing storytelling so you should watch out for a show some time near you. I hope you get to see them someday!!

I have heard really great things about Vow of Celibacy! It’s only my especially excited about shelf on Goodreads. I’ve heard so many great things about it! I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet, actually. I did this list for Autostraddle a little while ago about books with bisexual women main character that aren’t YA or erotica; if you haven’t seen it already, maybe some of those might appeal (Vow of Celibacy is on it but hopefully you haven’t read some of the others)!

I totally feel you on wanting “a book set in the modern United States where a bi character genuinely engages with the cultural norms around her relationships with honesty and without too much angst, and she wears rainbows and flirts with everyone (or not) and never cuts her hair,” except I’m Canadian so that aspect would be an added bonus! Well you know what they say: if you can’t find the book you want to read in the world, you should write it yourself!

Ugh at your mom and brother saying you should just date men. I would love to read a book where the character dealt with all those expectations. So real, unfortunately.

You’ve kind of answered my next question (Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?) but maybe you have other ideas of queer books that you think don’t exist yet that you want to read!

I actually need to add something to my answer from last week–Just this weekend I read A Girl Walks Into a Book, by Miranda K. Pennington, which was part biography of the Brontes, part analysis of the Brontes’ books, and part memoir about the author’s relationship with the books she loves so much and how they influenced her life. While her bisexuality was not a huge part of the book, there were bits that really spoke to my experience as a nerdy bi bibliophile, like her high school self realizing that she was “swoony” over both Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. I totally remember having the experience she describes of admiring heroines in my novels and not being sure whether I wanted to be them (and date their awesome partner) or date them (the answer, of course, was both, but I didn’t know “both” was an option for lots of things at the time). It was a really fun book overall.

I’ve read Hild from your list, along with Vow of Celibacy, but I’ll definitely look into reading more of those!

I’d love a book that focuses on queer community and chosen family, not just of the romantic variety. Maybe about a young lonely queer person trying to find The One and instead finding/building deep friendships with other queer folks, for a different kind of happy ending. My chosen queer family is so important to me–they’re the people that I call when I need help, and they call me, and there’s a deep love there that doesn’t have anything to do with romance, but absolutely has to do with being LGBTQ2IA+. Maybe a book like that exists, but I haven’t found it yet.

I’d also love more fantasy/sci-fi novels in worlds with totally different gender roles and expectations than ours. If you’re going to have magic, why have sexism? I have this concept for a world where instead of getting gender assigned at birth, there’s one pronoun for all kids, and they have coming-of-age ceremonies where they announce their adult pronouns, but there’s so many ways to play with and subvert our expectations.

I also want more biographies of historical queer people. I read the Irrepressible: Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham and that was just so cool! I want more like that.

One day, I really would like to write some of the books I want to exist. I struggle with world building, especially for fantasy (how does magic work??) but also like, what does the villain want? We shall see.

You’ve been doing a lot of research on what books are out there in a ton of genres. What major gaps are you seeing?

Ooh, A Girl Walks Into a Book sounds so good! I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it!! I am adding it to my especially excited shelf right now!

Books that focus on queer community and chosen family are definitely hard to find. It feels like a lot of media (books but also TV and movies) love to feature a queer person or two within the context of straight /cis characters/ world and shy away from all queer character casts. That trend is so funny because it’s so the opposite of my experience and a lot of other queer people I know! It seems like straight/cis people think it’s unrealistic when maybe the opposite is true? I think it’s also the assumption all queer characters casts wouldn’t appeal to mainstream audiences.

Another related question I had for Autostraddle was books focused on queer friendship, which were fun to find! About half the books I ended up choosing for my list were YA, which seems to be the general trend when I’m looking for hard to find topics or specific kinds of queer books. Go, YA! They always seem to be a bit ahead of the curve.

Yeah, SF/F that just reinforces societal norms is so over! I love your idea (:

As far as major gaps I’ve noticed I think the biggest issue is having intersectional queer identities (QTPOC, disabled queer ppl, etc.) represented (both characters and authors) and the more marginalized parts of the community (trans, asexual/aromantic, intersex, two-spirit) represented, again as characters and authors. It’s not too hard (at least for me) to find white LGB characters in every major genre (SF/F, mystery, literary, romance, etc, and even in sub-genres like urban fantasy, epic fantasy, etc.) but it’s always more difficult, sometimes very difficult to find even LGB POC characters and authors.

I aim to have 50% POC characters and authors in every queer book list I write, and sometimes it’s actually impossible. With books with T2IA characters, we’re still at the beginning stages of having authors who share those identities having work about T2IA characters published. I recently got asked about making a list of fiction with intersex characters, and from my initial research, I think there are literally not enough books actually written by intersex people to make an 8 book list, which is pretty sad! Many of the ones out there by non-intersex authors are really harmful, unfortunately.

Actually this ties in nicely with the next question: How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read? Sometimes for me I can’t tell if there’s a genuine gap somewhere or if I just can’t find the type of queer book I’m looking for!

Yeah, those are pretty major gaps. I don’t think I’ve read any books with intersex characters, let alone actually written by intersex authors, and intersectionality is so so important and so hard to find.

Honestly, your Autostraddle lists have been the best resource I’ve found for finding LGBTQ2IA+ books to read. The first one I found was the queer high fantasy list just by googling “queer fantasy books,” and from there linked to your other lists. The urban fantasy list, the bi fiction and nonfiction lists, and the sci-fi list have also been quite helpful. Unfortunately my local library consortium doesn’t always have the books, which is frustrating, but I’ve managed to get a bunch of them from the library, so I’m really glad it’s there.

Other than that, I mainly find books by word of mouth–my roommate and I often exchange whatever queer books we’ve found lately, and other friends pass books around. Once I find an author I like, I try to get my hands on whatever else they’ve written, which may or may not be queer, but at least is more likely to be queer than random books of the shelves.

I also browse in my favorite independent bookstores, both of which have note cards with staff recommendations all over the shelves. That’s how I found A Girl Walks Into A Book–it doesn’t say anywhere on it that the author is bi, but the staff recommendation card did, so I bought it, and I’m really glad I did.

Your lists have certainly made searching much, much easier than it otherwise would be. Thank you so much for putting those lists together! Other online lists I’ve found are much harder to navigate, just have lists of titles with no further information to help me choose, end up being rather porn-heavy or unrealistic, not actually that queer, and certainly don’t have your focus on including POC. There are some good readings lists of queer Jewish books out there, which is another subgenre I’m interested in, but they tend to be pretty heavy on memoirs and essays. Even the rare fiction tends to be very much about being queer and Jewish, rather than just having a queer Jewish protagonist, if that’s a distinction that makes sense. I do also really appreciate the nonfiction stuff, but it tends to be more emotional than I want to deal with in my leisure reading. Then again, maybe I’m looking hard enough for those books, since I’m pretty sure they’re out there somewhere.

Aside from the gaps I mentioned in the last email, it hasn’t been that hard for me to find the queer books that I want (again, very much thanks to you!) but I have found that I had to go looking actively. I very rarely stumble across a queer book or even a queer character in a book unexpectedly.

I totally dropped the ball with this lovely ongoing email interview and I’m so sorry! Life has been real nutty since I started working full time. I actually only have one more question for you: 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’ve actually been meaning to email you again because I read one of your other interviews recently and realized that I’d completely neglected to discuss the significance of queer fanfiction, despite reading several thousand words of it every month. Somehow, despite some of it being better written than actual books I’ve read, I neglected to count it as “literature,” but some of the best queer romances I’ve read are in the fandom community. Fanfiction tends to have way more bi visibility, generally queer characters, and a much greater willingness to have polyamorous happy endings than general fiction. Plus, the fandom community is way more conscious of mental health needs and respectful of trigger warning than anything else I experience, which I appreciate to much.

And now that I’m counting fanfiction as literature, I have to revise my favorite queer fiction list to include Known Associates, a novel-length Captain America fanfiction about a genderqueer Steve Rogers that features a meticulously researched, vibrant, gorgeously written look into the queer activist community in 1940s New York and then a heart-wrenching character study on what happens when you wake up in the future and your world is gone and none of the words you have to describe your identity are accepted anymore. Plus, you know, superheros! I stayed up all night reading it the first time and have reread it more than once.

On to your actual question:

Yes! I’ve attended a monthly Lesbian Book Club at a local bookstore most months for about a year now. I was complaining to a friend of mine that I didn’t know how to meet queer women. He suggested going to the (only) lesbian bar in the area, but I was not enthusiastic because bars are loud and overwhelming. “I just wanna meet someone at the libaray!” I whined. to which he responded that I ought to go to Lesbian Book Club, and if I were an anime character, there would’ve just been a bunch of exclamation marks around my head at that point. Not only did I discover a lovely group of queer women, I met my current girlfriend there. While not every book we’ve read has been great (I have read fanfiction significantly better written than a few of the books we’ve discussed) our discussions have been really engaging and it’s just a really nice community.

The bookstore we meet at is queer-owned and gives us a discount on all the books we read for the club. There have been a few times that I’ve felt like a bit of an imposter since I’m not actually a lesbian (nobody’s said anything actually biphobic, just that the not-unreasonable assumption is that everyone there is a lesbian) but it is just so wonderful to be in a space explicitly by and for queer women that I can handle a little bit of invisibility or come out if the conversation gets personal (it’s a pretty fluid group and there are often new people there, so just mentioning it once doesn’t fix the problem).

Talking about books is one of my very favorite things, and I really love getting to that with other people, not for class or work, just for fun. I am an extremely opinionated person both about really significant things and about ones I recognize as objectively trivial but nevertheless care deeply about (e.g., don’t even get me started on how much I hate Romione), and people at book club often disagree with me about aspects of the books we read in ways that are really fascinating and helpful to me, especially in a context where I am able to trust their good intentions and different experiences in a way that I struggle to when the person disagreeing with me a cishet white Christian dude.

Wow, both of these things are really cool to hear about. I’ve had a few people doing these interviews ask if fanfiction “counts” and I’m always surprised people thought it might not! Of course!! Known Associates sounds really awesome. I’m happy to add it to your list of fav queer reads.

That lesbian book club sounds awesome (well, except the bi invisibility part…). I really like the aspect of getting to hear from people who disagree with you about aspects of the book. I run a book club as a librarian at work and we always have the best conversations when some people like the book and others don’t and they talk about why! It’s also really awesome you met your girlfriend there. What a nice nerdy queer love story.

This has been a lot of fun to reflect on! I always love talking about my favorite books. I’ve really enjoyed this discussion with you!

Thanks so much for sharing with us Leora! All of your answers are full of so many wonderful queer book recommendations and so thoughtful reflections about identity and reading. I’m so grateful to get to share your words with the wider queer book internet!

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works 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.
This entry was posted in Bisexual, Fantasy, Fiction, Interview with a Queer Reader, Ivan E. Coyote, Jewish, Non-Canadian, Queer. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Interview with a Queer Reader: Leora Spitzer talks Queer Jewish Books, Queer Fanfiction, and Still Looking for a Book that is “Yours”

  1. Robin Mandell says:

    This interview is so, so, so amazing. Books are one of my greatest joys.being bi and finding a place in queer life is a struggle. Definitely going to look up some of the books mentioned here.

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