Interview With a Queer Reader: Sanchari Sur Talks Queer South Asian Writing, Naked Heart Festival, and More!

Sanchari Sur is a PhD candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on South Asian Canadian Writers (women, to be specific), as well as representations of subaltern bodies in those written works, and how those bodies challenge Canadian multiculturalism. Sanchari identifies as gender queer. Queerness and its representations often find themselves into both her academic and creative work.

She recently started seriously investing time and energy to creative writing last year and has so far been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, Matrix Magazine, The Feminist Wire, The Unpublished City anthology (Toronto: BookThug, 2017) curated by Dionne Brand, and forthcoming in The Rusty Toque. (Wow, right!? All that in a year!). You should also check out this great recent interview she did with Gwen Benaway in The Rusty Toque. Find Sanchari on her blog and on Twitter @sanchari_sur.

Sanchari Sur

Keeping reading to hear Sanchari talk about queerness in South Asian writing, Shani Mootoo, looking for fluid sexuality and gender in books, Naked Heart Festival in Toronto, 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?)

My first encounter was with Ruskin Bond’s short novel, The Room on the Roof ([published in] 1956), at the age of 14. The narrative had a gay teenage boy, where moments of homosexuality/homoeroticism between the character and his friend were heavily cloaked. At the time, I had to read the work a few times to even understand the relationship between the two boys properly. The short novel was in a collection of Bond’s work, an omnibus my parents gifted me because I was such a fan of his work. Of course, they were unaware of all of the contents of the collection. There were a lot of stories in the collection that were definitely not PG-13.

My first proper encounter with a LGBTQ book was in undergrad at the age of 19, Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman (2002). The book contained a lesbian relationship between an unhappy married housewife and an activist widow. It would have been an extremely radical book (sorry, spoiler alert!), if it had not ended in the demise of the relationship, where the housewife goes back to the (dis)comfort of her heteronormative existence. I came across the novel because I had just finished reading Kapur’s Difficult Daughters, and was hungry to read more of her writing. It was serendipity, sort of.

I think it took me longer to encounter queerness in literature because I was drawn to South Asian writing (from South Asia and its diaspora), and either those books referred to queerness in passing, as caricatures, or didn’t refer to it at all.

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

Aah, so many! These are my five:
1. Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994): I loved the seamlessness with which Selvadurai wrote queerness into his work. The voice of the protagonist stayed with me for a long time.

2. Absolutely anything by Shani Mootoo!: Mootoo’s books have a vigorous and intersectional quality to them. That is, her characters (especially, her queer characters) are not one dimensional. I like the fluidity of gender that she portrays in her work. I have never seen such fluidity before, and it was in her work that I saw a character that came closest to reflecting my understanding of my sexuality.

3. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976): I read it as part of my course work in undergrad, and was blown by the possibilities of science fiction. Although traditionally, I am a fan and writer of literary fiction, this particular book will always hold a special place.

4. Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires (2005): This was the first theory book I read on queerness, and it opened up my eyes and mind to a way of thinking that I had not encountered previously.

5. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (edited by Ruth Vanita Saleem Kidwai) (2000): I had read about an obscure (and rarely talked about, if at all) Hindu myth in one of my undergrad classes, and the excerpt had been taken from this book. It is a rich collection of queer writings that have either disappeared or have been made invisible through time in India. I return to this collection time and again to gain inspiration for my stories.

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

Shani Mootoo’s Valmiki’s Daughter (2008). The character of Viveka came closest to reflecting my experience.

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

I am not sure if such a book exists, but I would like to read a book where sexuality is not a homonormative idealization, but is a fluid construct. There is a misconception that sexuality remains the same throughout one’s life. Real life instances will prove this false. But I am yet to see such a representation in the works of South Asian (and its diaspora) writers. Shani Mootoo has been quite successful in the representations of fluidity, but I would most like to see a book that explores the variations of gender queerness.

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

I get my recommendations from queer lit festivals (like Naked Heart!), queer bookshops and publishers (like, Glad Day in Toronto, or Queer Ink in Mumbai), and recommended lists on Autostraddle.

It is easier to find books here in Canada. As a graduate student, I also have access to an extensive library system where I can get my hands on practically any book I want. In India, it’s tougher, considering Section 377 of the India Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality, still stands.

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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 have friends in the queer community who read extensively. I have never been involved with the LGBTQ reading/writing community before as I had not come out to my family (sometimes, this “coming out” never ends, because I get asked the same questions again and again). I am still trying to figure out where I fit in, find the vocabulary for my gender/sexuality. It’s a process, and being a part of the Naked Heart Festival this year was a part of that process. While I have written queer characters in my fiction, I am just beginning to connect with other queer writers.

Thanks so much for sharing so many great books with us Sanchari, especially ones by queer South Asian writers I hadn’t heard of. One of these years I would LOVE to get to Naked Heart festival. It sounds so fabulous.

Posted in Canadian, Caribbean, Fiction, Interview with a Queer Reader, Postcolonial, Queer, Shani Mootoo, South Asian, Toronto | Tagged | Leave a comment

December Patreon Update: New Column Called Queer Can Lit Newsflash, More Interview with a Queer Reader Posts, and More!

Happy holidays and welcome back to my monthly update that I’m not sure I can call monthly anymore since I skipped last month! October was a bananas month for me for a few reasons, which made me late in my update for that month, so I decided it made sense to just wait until December for the next one, and here we are!

I can’t believe I’m sitting at $104 a month on Patreon from all you lovely supporters! Thanks so much. It’s been almost a year since I started a Patreon and I’m honestly surprised it has gone so well. It’s really reinvigorated me to dedicate time to this blog and made me think about what kind of content my readers are really looking for and try to meet those wants and needs as best as I can. I’m really, really grateful for any support you all have given me, whether it’s supporting my Patreon at any level, sharing my posts, commenting on my posts, chatting with me about queer bookish stuff on social media, and more!

Probably the biggest news for this blog is my new monthly-ish segment Queer Can Lit Newsflash! If you took the survey I did earlier this year, maybe you were one of the people who wanted more news-related posts. This is me listening to your feedback and thinking, oh yeah, that is a great idea. I get tidbits of news about LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian and Indigenous bookish stuff all the time from a variety of venues, and it totally makes sense for me to share it with y’all. Check out the first installment and second installment! If you’ve got any tips for me, from news about upcoming queer literary events to new releases to calls for submissions and anything else that seems relevant, email me at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com.

More news is that I’ve upped the Interview with a Queer Reader posts to two a month! This is also in response to the feedback I got on the survey, where a lot of people said they wanted more of those posts. Two interviews already went up in November, and you can expect this to continue. I put a call out one day on Twitter for potential interviewees last month and the stars must have been aligned that day, because I got a gazillion responses. I’m excited to get to share with you all these new queer readers’ experiences! But just because I’ve got folks lined up now, doesn’t mean you still can’t participate if you want. Send me an email (stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com) if you’re interested!

This month’s winner in the queer book draw is Leigh! Congrats Leigh! These are the books Leigh got to choose from:

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Besides the first two Queer Can Lit Newsflash segments, there is some other November content that maybe you missed. Are you into audiobooks? If so, (or if you’re just thinking about getting into audiobooks), check out this post: Five Queer Canadian Audiobooks for Your Ear-Reading Pleasure. I also wrote about some of my all-time favourite books, Four Amazing Queer Short Story Collections You Must Read. Really, I count those books by Nalo Hopkinson, Casey Plett, Nancy Jo Cullen, and Shani Mootoo among the best books I’ve EVER read. In November I also reviewed two really great books: Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy by Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett and Oracle Bone by Lydia Kwa. Damn, there is some amazing queer speculative fiction being written these days.

And as always I want to individually thank all of the people who’ve signed up to be patrons. You lovely humans are: Danika, Leigh, Anna Marie, Jane, Jakelene, Emmet, Madeline, Heather, Carla, Laurita, Jason, Jillian, Shelagh, Priscila, Allison, James, Seed, Julie, Katherine, Rachel, Samuel, Amy, Sarah, Daniel, Sarah, Chantelle, Al, Undertheteacup, Karen, Nicole, Leora, Loretta, and Mandy!

Last but not least, are you following me on the social media of your choice? Find Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian (or the real me) on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram!

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Devastation, Heartbreak, and Beauty Despite Everything in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Poetry Collection LOVE WILL BURST INTO A THOUSAND SHAPES

I’ve been putting off reviewing Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes, a poetry collection by queer disabled Vancouver-based writer Jane Eaton Hamilton, because, as far as I can remember it’s one of two things I’ve read where I had a particularly challenging reading experience: it was one of those books where I could recognize the skill and beauty of the writing but I didn’t truly appreciate them myself. (For those of you wondering, the other book that comes to mind is Lisa Foad’s The Night Is A Mouth, which I review here). Has anyone else had this kind of experience? I guess it’s just knowing that something is not your thing but being able to recognize that it could be exactly someone else’s thing. I mean, I know this is true of Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes; there’s this glowing review on the Lambda Literary site and here’s another one from Prism Magazine and another one. Well, here goes nothing!

As the publisher’s blurb declares, this collection of poetry (Hamilton’s third) centres on themes of “art, children, marriage, breaking, rejoicing.” Let’s start with art. Those more familiar with the art world than me (which is, uh, probably most of the people reading this) will likely delight in being able to pick out details they recognize from famous artists’ work and lives in the poems Hamilton crafts from the perspectives of Suzanne Valadon, Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Degas, Frida Kahlo, and Gauguin. Unfortunately the only artist of that group whose work I’m actually familiar with is Frida Kahlo. I did have an uncanny indescribable feeling while reading the titular poem of the collection (“Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes: Frida Kahlo,” and actually a quotation taken from a letter to Diego Rivera from Kahlo) that the words somehow felt like how her art looks. I wonder if the other poems about artists felt that way for readers who know their art. Readers not familiar with the artists but interested in visual art (this is not really me, unfortunately) might also have fun looking them up and experiencing the art alongside the poems. I also felt “in on” the Gauguin poem, called “Woman With a Mango by Gauguin: Etta Cone” in reference to Gertrude Stein; Hamilton writes the poem in an uncanny reflection of Stein’s strange, mesmerizingly repetitive style and it is bang on:

Gertrude you are a Gertrude are a Gertrude

no one in Baltimore is a Gertrude anymore

If you can’t say anything nice about anyone

come sit next to me

you said

and I did

The next section of the collection following the one focused on artists is “Our Terrible Good Luck,” an apt oxymoron that encompasses the devastation that populates these poems on topics not often associated that kind of horror: motherhood and children. Oh boy, was this part of the collection hard for me. They’re just shattering to read: domestic abuse, the death of children, gun violence, mass murderers, the dark sides of motherhood, the physicality and sometimes grotesqueness of child birth. For me, they were painful and difficult to read, despite their being beautifully written. When I say devastating, this is what I mean:

In the month before they find your son’s body

downstream, you wake imagining

his fist clutching the spent elastic

of his pyjama bottoms, the pair with sailboats riding them

He’s swimming past your room toward milk and Cheerios

his cowlick alive on his small head, swimming

toward cartoons and baseballs, toward his skateboard

paddling his feet like flippers. You’re surprised

by how light he is, how his lips shimmer like water

how his eyes glow green as algae

He amazes you again and again, how he breathes

through water. Every morning you almost drown

fighting the undertow, the wild summer runoff

coughing into air exhausted, but your son is happy

He’s learning the language of gills and fins

of minnows and fry. That’s what he says

when you try to pull him to safety; he says he’s a stuntman

riding the waterfall down its awful lengths

to the log jam at the bottom pool

He’s cool to the touch; his beauty has you by the throat

He’s translucent, you can see his heart under

his young boy’s ribs, beating

as it once beat under the stretched skin of your belly

blue as airlessness, primed for vertical dive

HOLY FUCK, Jane Eaton Hamilton. I don’t remember the last time I read a poem so fucking sad and heartbreaking.

jane eaton hamilton

Jane Eaton Hamilton / image via huffingtonpost.com

Although the last two sections “This New Country” and “Hands” are about intimacy, love, and sex, they often continue the deeply melancholic tone of the previous poems, but not always. I wonder too, if my sadness about the poems in the middle of the collection crept into my reading of the later poems. Maybe it would have been better to space out my reading of this collection more. Anyway, early poems in “This New Country” are joyful celebrations of brand new intimacy, like when Hamilton writes in the titular poem:

We packed our bags and named

our destination: each other

climbed into the car

the bus, the plane … I

couldn’t stop looking at you. We

didn’t know the new country even

four years later. … This country is

saturated with colour: azure

persimmon, indigo; with light:

dawn, the harsh light of noon, the washed

light of rain, dusk; with heat

We can’t send postcards. We are dumb

exiled to grace.

Unfortunately for my unrelentingly romantic heart, the poems about new love and sex and building a life together progress fairly quickly to, well, more devastation. In “Paris,” Hamilton writes

I didn’t understand the possibility of endings then, I didn’t know you

would soon say you weren’t in love with me and had been hungering

to leave for thirteen years. What time of day was it? Just after noon

and we were off the Montmartre bus

I was taking atmospheric photographs

I ambled down the street to meet you, my grin large

I remember wanting to lift you in the street and swing you

until love made us soar

I don’t know how to describe these poems except to keep using the adjectives devastating and heartbreaking all over again. It’s a testament to Hamilton’s writing talent that she is able to evoke such an achingly beautiful image of love — the “wanting to lift you in the street and swing you” — and at the same time that horrible feeling of looking back on your coupled happiness from the hindsight of the ruins of the relationship. This poem perfectly captures that feeling; reading it brought me back to when I felt that way at the end of my previous long-term relationship, and I have to say it’s not somewhere I really wanted to go, because it’s just painful.

When the next set of poems move into new intimacy again, the past hurt is not far behind, the melancholy persists: “I am too hungry. I am too huge. I am too slow. It is too late for me.” But Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes, thankfully, doesn’t end there. The last poem, “The Lovers I Have Loved,” manages to integrate the sadness of the past while not allowing it to overshadow the beauty you still find the relationships that have passed and the lovers who have left you. It’s a delicate balance astutely achieved, as Hamilton ends the poem:

Whatever happened

(we did not tarry, we did not root)

I still walk toward them

and lay my palm upon each cheek

a lover’s palm on lovers’ cheeks

All this to say: Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes will probably wreck you. And probably haunt you. And probably make you cry. But that’s not to say there isn’t astounding beauty within and outside the despair and sorrow.

Posted in Canadian, disability, Lesbian, Poetry, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Queer Can Lit Newsflash: Upcoming Queer Issue of Room Magazine, Fantasy by Trans Femmes, New Queer Indigenous Work, and More!

Welcome to this second installment of my new monthly-ish column news about stuff that’s happening in the Canadian and/or Indigenous LGBTQ2IA+ literary world. Have something you think I should cover next time? Send me an email: stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com.

Did you love jia qing wilson-yang’s debut novel Small Beauty? I know I did, and you probably did too, so  while you’re waiting for her next full-length work, you should read her short story “Rewinding” which was recently published in Rice Paper magazine. The story also features illustrations by Jesse Zhang. To give you a taste, here’s how the story begins:

She couldn’t sleep. It had been a horrible day. A day that felt like it was going out of its way to tell her that she wasn’t right for the world. As if she had been the subject of a poorly lit reality show about Asian transsexuals, as if the movements of her day had been broadcast on television for the world to judge. Which, if she was being honest, was the kind of show she would watch.

In case you missed my original review of Sigal Samuel’s debut novel The Mystics of Mile End, I should tell you that I LOVED it and it was one of my favourite reads last year. The novel is about a Jewish family and is set in Montreal (the Mile End neighbourhood, specifically) so it’s especially apt that a translation of the novel into French just came out! It’s exciting that a novel set in a diverse neighbourhood full of Yiddish, English, and French speakers is going to be newly available in one of those languages. (There’s also an Italian translation coming up).

Speaking of Anglophone queer Canadian books being translated into French, Amber Dawn’s debut novel Sub Rosa – which was the first novel I ever reviewed for this blog! — recently got picked up to be translated into French too. Also in Amber Dawn news: her latest novel Sodom Road Exit is set to come out from Arsenal Pulp Press next year and the cover is BEAUTIFUL. Check it out:

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Feminist literary mag Room Magazine has an upcoming issue that is going to be particularly up the alley of anyone who reads this blog, whether you’re a queer reader or queer writer. Their current call for submissions is for issue 41.3, “The Queer Issue.” The full call reads:

Room magazine invites women and genderqueer folks who identify as part of the LGBTTQIA+ spectrum to submit their best poetry, fiction, CNF, and art to our first queer-themed issue. We especially encourage submissions from writers affected by multiple intersections of oppression, such as racism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, and transphobia.

This issue is a celebration of emerging and established queer writers and artists; the creative work itself does not have to be queer in focus. Do you want to queer genre? Create a poem about the corporatization of Pride? Or just write microfiction on the minutiae of daily living? All types of submissions are welcome.

New work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha will also be featured in this issue, which will be edited by Leah Golob, and assistant edited by Arielle Spence and Rebecca Russell. The call for submissions is open until January 31st.

this-wound-is-a-worldHave you heard of Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation)? I hadn’t until I went to a reading featuring his debut poetry collection This Wound is a World (shame on me) and I was so moved and impressed. He calls the book an “instruction manual for a queer Indigenous future” in this CBC interview. You all should really get this book in your life. Look for more on This Wound is a World on this site in the future! The publisher describes the book as “scavenging for a decolonial kind of heaven where ‘everyone is at least a little gay.’” To quote from my memory of the event, one of the lines in a poem is “I’m a hopeless romantic who hopes every blow job is transformative.”

Are you a trans feminine writer who writes fantasy? You should definitely submit a pitch to Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes! It’s being published by Bedside Press in Winnipeg, edited by Gwen Benaway ,and will include written work by Kai Cheng Thom, Casey Plett, and Gwen Benaway and art by Alex Morris. I am eagerly awaiting this collection!! Bedside Press is the same publisher who put out Love Beyond Body, Space, & Time: An Indigenous LGBT Anthology, which I review here. Given how great that collection was and my love for the work of all those authors who are already included, I have very high hopes for Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes. Also, that title! And this beautiful cover (art and design by Annie Mok)!

maiden-mother-crone-fantastical-trans-femmes

Posted in Alberta, Amber Dawn, Anthology, Asian, Canadian, Fantasy, femme, Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, Jewish, Lesbian, Montreal, Poetry, Queer, Queer Can Lit Newsflash, Short Stories, Trans, Trans Feminine | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Interview with a Queer Reader: Cameron Talks PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, Queer Australian Books, and more!

Cameron is a gay man studying and writing in Sydney, Australia. He reads a bunch, watches a lot of film, and reviews local work for the student magazine he’s an editor on. Cameron also writes a fair bit of fiction. You can find him on Twitter at @Cameron___c.

Keep reading to hear about Australian queer books, seeing something of yourself in the past when reading older books, looking for a broader range of experiences in fiction, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, how fruitless searching “gay” on Goodreads is, and more!

cameron

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?)

Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is like, the heterosexual’s queer book. I found it at thirteen because one of my friends was really into it, and I loved that there was a queer character. In retrospect, I was very pleased with a pretty minor part of the story.

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

Oh, jeez: I really love Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas. It’s definitely informed by queerness and how it impacts the protagonist’s masculinity, and there’s a lot that’s very familiar. But I think that’s got more to do with its Australian setting, than anything. There’s also Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which is an extraordinarily moving classic. If we’re allowed to choose non-fiction, I’d go with Boy Erased by Garrard Conley. It’s a really detailed reflection not just on conversion therapy, but on how masculinity informs homophobia. Also Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, because, like, duh, it’s Virginia Woolf.

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

I don’t really think I have one that stands out as being particularly representative of my experience. There’s another Australian book, Fairyland, by Sumner Locke Elliott, that was published in the 90s, a year before he died. He was a fairly well-known author but he hadn’t come out before he published it. It was reprinted in 2013, and I’ve had it for a while but I only read it recently. It’s about Sydney, where I grew up, and there’s also something very resonant about the alienation and loneliness faced by the protagonist, even though it’s set in the 30s and 40s. It’s nice to see something of yourself in the past, because the mainstream understanding of queer history is that we emerged out of the aether sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Even if we don’t really believe that in those particular terms, that’s the view we come back to, so evidence about how wrong that idea is is nice.

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

I don’t know. My view on representation is that people shouldn’t be looking for the one story that perfectly validates their life or experience, or whatever, but we should have a broader range of experiences to read about. I guess I’d like a really sort of literary set of short stories all about queer people. I used to really love really cishet coming-of-age short stories that were really grungy but really moving and intense, and I guess if I’m really self-indulgent, I’d like some queer variation on that.

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

It’s incredibly difficult, so I guess I seek them out whenever I’m looking through what’s coming out. Searching for ‘gay’ books on Goodreads, or whatever, tends to end up with a bunch of really eroticised or flat, boring narratives. In film I tend to try and get myself review tickets to screenings of queer stuff, but I can’t really do the equivalent with books, and I think that’s because publishers are more conservative in both the practical and the political sense, because there’s less money to invest into what’s assumedly ‘niche’ art that’s automatically irrelevant to cishet people.

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 bunch of other queer readers, because I have Twitter and go to something called National Young Writer’s Festival, and queers are just naturally magnetised to each other in those settings. Which is good, but I do wish I had something more formal. I tried to set up a queer book club through my university once, but it fell flat due to lack of interest.  

Thanks for being our first Australian queer reader Cameron! If any gay men have any tips for searching online for gay books, comment here to help Cameron out. It’s requests like this that make me sad there’s no queer men’s version of Autostraddle.

Posted in Fiction, Gay, Interview with a Queer Reader, Non-Fiction, Queer | Tagged | Leave a comment

Magic, Action, Feminism, Political Intrigue, and Emotional Depths Too in Lydia Kwa’s ORACLE BONE

Vancouver writer and psychologist Lydia Kwa’s latest offering Oracle Bone is an epic and ambitious novel that’s a skillful blend of magical realism and historical fiction, with notes of epic fantasy and mythology as well, to create a book that, above all, never ceases to transport you utterly to a different time and place. It also has ample doses of feminism and a dash of queerness.

If you’re a fan of Lydia Kwa, you probably know her as a writer of sensuous and emotionally intelligent poetry (her most recent collection being Sinuous in 2013). But even if you’re familiar with her poetry, you many not know her 2005 novel The Walking Boy, whose story chronically follows that of Oracle Bone; in a way, then, her latest novel is a kind of prequel or precursor to The Walking Boy, which Arsenal Pulp Press is set to re-publish in a new edition in 2018. But while Oracle Bone does feel like a story that has yet to end, it’s also a satisfactory narrative in and of itself, and one sure to satisfy fans of any and all of the genres that Kwa is nodding to.

Although I would definitely classify this novel as magical realism rather than fantasy, it does have much the same feeling that epic fantasy does, namely in the large cast of interconnected characters, the play with the idea of destiny, and the multiple epic journeys more than one character—some of whom could readily be called heroines—takes. The setting of Oracle Bone is 7th century China, which for any 21st century reader, especially a white person living in North America like me, is transportation enough from the world I live in. Yet the historical aspect is only one of the ways Kwa transports the reader: the 7th century China the characters inhabit is full of magic. It is a place where myths are alive, prophecies shape people’s lives, and animal spirits and demons live among humans.

Kwa weaves together four main narratives: the first follows a girl Ling as she grows up after being saved by a Daoist nun named Qilan from slavery after her parents are killed by highway robbers; her main journey is preparing for revenge on the man who took her parents from her. The second story, closely related to Ling’s of course, is that of Qilan herself and her efforts to stop a demon inhabiting a human’s body from destroying humanity using the mysterious oracle bone of the title. The third: empress Wu Zhao, a politically ambitious woman with humble origins who has clawed her way to the top, attempts to take complete control of the Tang court from the emperor, with the help of her lover Xie. The fourth: a Buddhist monk works under an elder monk Xuanzang—himself under the thumb of the emperor and empress—on the translation of Buddhist scripture but questions his place in the monastery, especially given his attraction to men.

If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. (I told you this novel had much in common with epic fantasy; in fact, there is a helpful page detailing the cast of characters and their relationships with each other as is common in fantasy novels at the front of the book). But although the plots are complex, they’re also not hard to follow once you are immersed in the story. Another thing that’s essential to emphasize is that while action and plot movements are important, Oracle Bone isn’t one of those novels that sacrifices emotional depths or character complexities or spiritual relevancy for action. What I’m saying is that this story has magic, action, a fascinating historical setting, multifaceted characters, and all the feels. I feel that to tell you much more would be to deprive you of the pleasure of experiencing the novel for yourself, so you should just go do that now.

[Warning for graphic sexual and physical violence in the first scene, pages 15-22]

Posted in Asian, Canadian, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, magic realism, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged | 1 Comment

What Else Can I Say Except I Loved It?: A Review of MEANWHILE ELSEWHERE: SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FROM TRANSGENDER WRITERS

I honestly don’t even know how to begin this review because I loved Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers so damn much and I think I must accept that I will never be able to express in words just how great it is. If you trust my recommendations and want to save yourself the time of reading this long review, just go ahead and get yourself a copy of Meanwhile Elsewhere asap. YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.

I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention how ground-breaking this book is: it’s the first anthology of speculative fiction by trans writers. At nearly 450 pages it is quite an offering, both in quality and quantity; editors Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett have done an astounding job. There are simply so many incredible stories in the book, all over the speculative fiction map: horror, dystopian, alternate realities, mythical pasts, cyberpunk, and all variations of science fictional futures. I was totally blown away by the quality: their inventiveness, their humour, and their emotional impact. There were stories that made me laugh out loud, ones that made me think real hard, and ones that made me cry. I started reading this deliciously fat book back in September and some of the early stories are still burned in my brain; I know many of them will stick with me for a long time.

Naturally the collection is focused on trans experiences, in a way that wonderfully centres trans readers and implies a trans readership, or at least one familiar and informed about trans issues. Unfortunately that fact is still a notable one, with so many books with trans characters and by trans authors being pigeonholed into a mold for an implied cis audience. If I find it so refreshing to read trans books that are so authentically and messily trans, I can’t imagine how transformative it must be for trans readers.

What’s so striking about Meanwhile Elsewhere is how speculative fiction opens up so much space for not only familiar trans coming out stories but also some just plain incredible fiction where being trans is incidental to the plot or organically integral in a way where the story is about being trans but also so many other things. The science fiction stories in particular imagine so many futures and possibilities which interrogate what it means to be (a trans) human; that is what I love about science fiction and what so many of the writers in Meanwhile Elsewhere do so beautifully. So many of the stories gave me that delicious feeling of seeing the so-called real world anew, from a fresh perspective, reminding me of that ever relevant impulse of science fiction, of imagining the world other than how it is, of imaging a world where things could be different.

If you’re looking for sapphic aka lesbian/bi women content, there is also a substantial amount of that, which I was obviously delighted about. FYI, there are definitely more stories by and about trans women than trans men or non-binary folks, so the queer women content makes sense. And there are some standouts by Canadian writers, including Morgan M. Page, Sybil Lamb, Trish Salah, Bridget Liang, and more! (Also let’s not forget Casey Plett is Canadian too!).

Can I tell you about the stories now?? Okay, but what do I even say because there are at least a dozen stories in Meanwhile Elsewhere that I could write a whole essay about. I will attempt to restrain my word count while simultaneously giving my love and passion full reign.

Were you expecting a gentle, unchallenging introduction to Meanwhile Elsewhere? Too bad. Do you know what the collection opens with? FUTURISTIC BDSM TRANS EROTICA set in a mysteriously paranormal deserted house in a future city’s undesirable quarter. When I say this anthology is unapologetically trans, in both its content and the audience it imagines, this is the kind of thing I mean:

She fell through the glittering cloud and landed on top of him, grabbing his hair and smashing her lips into his. His little cock has hard between his thighs; her clit was tenting her skirt.

Before you can recover from being simultaneously turned on and creeped out by that first story—“Control” by Rachel K. Zall—Fitzpatrick and Plett spin you into the darkest, goriest piece in the collection: Bridget Liang’s “Delicate Bodies.” Beryl, the main character, is a Chinese Canadian trans woman living in Toronto. It’s a regular day for her, on her way to a meeting with her Ontario Works caseworker who refuses to call her anything other than her dead name, until she gets bitten. By a human. What would you do if you became a zombie? What if you suddenly started to crave human flesh, and, after checking Facebook, realized that the zombie apocalypse is here and you’re one of them and your friends are mourning you in a way eerily reminiscent of the fucked up way they did that when you came out as trans? Here’s what goes through Beryl’s head:

She had a sinking feeling the only thing she wanted now was brains… But that was revolting! Her belly growled at the thought of eating human brains? Or just human flesh in general? Suddenly all she could think of was the salty warmth of blood pumping from a fluttering heart. Every fiber of her body was crying out for her to feed. Tear. Rip flesh. Bathe in the blood. Rinse. Repeat.

This was worse than testosterone! She was a vegetarian. Her family was Buddhist. She could barely stand the thought of eating meat, let alone her own kind!

Although, she thought to herself, were they really her own kind? People like her certainly weren’t seen as fully human. Not many professional queers were willing to hire a weird Chinese trans girl dropout who’d barely started her medical transition.

Such is the beginning of what becomes a tale of revenge fantasy violence and trans-zombie-on-trans-zombie sex. Just like the scariest zombie movie you’ve ever seen, “Delicate Bodies” is not for the faint of heart.

The collection takes a decidedly different turn with another story with Canadian connections: “What Cheer” by Vancouver resident RJ Edwards, a beautiful and weird and sad story featuring Christmas, aliens, and non-binary feels. Addie has returned to their hometown for Christmas to the complexity of negotiating how to not be too queer or trans at family gatherings so as not to “ruin Christmas” and trying to stay “cool and invulnerable” in the face of being in love with a friend who only friend-loves you back. All this would be enough for a fascinating story, except it’s just the setting for Addie finding a mysterious egg that spawns an alien double that looks just like them and wants to learn all about what it means to be human.

The fourth story, again, takes readers somewhere completely different with a hilarious story, “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura?” by Aisling Fae, in which Satan is a bad-ass trans woman and God is a douchebro who’s in love with her but obviously unworthy. I LOVE IT. I laughed out loud on the bus while reading that story.

Canadian Trish Salah’s “It Can Grow!!!” is next and it’s about a queer trans woman trying to figure out how to deal with her brain-eating amoeba and her inability to have an orgasm. Was taking home the trans guy she meets at the Toronto dyke bar where her girlfriend is a bartender a good way of dealing? Probably not. This story was bizarre and funny in a way that made me go “huh??” at the end and start reading the story anew.

I think it was about this point in the anthology when I thought, can Meanwhile Elsewhere keep this up? So far every single story has blown my mind. Well, the answer to that question is a resounding YES. Because the next story Calvin Gimpelevich’s “Rent, Don’t Sell,” one of my favourites from the whole anthology. “Rent, Don’t Sell” is about a cis lesbian veteran and amputee named Nok who deals with her PTSD and newfound disability partly through her job at SciFit, a gym where she inhabits the bodies of others who want to get fit or lose weight without putting in the effort themselves. This is only one use of the future’s body swapping technology: Nok’s love interest is Natasha, a trans woman who’s used it only to find herself struggling with a different kind of dysphoria in the body she thought she wanted. Nok’s sister Mara is also making use of the technology through temporary capitalist gains available by allowing her body to be rented for sex work; she too is unprepared for the consequences of the body swapping. For Natasha, it’s the realization that although she now inhabits a woman’s body, it isn’t her body; for Mara, it’s the ignorance of the kind of trauma a body can carry even if your mind didn’t experience it. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but be prepared for amazing Thelma and Louise-type feels (without any of the tragedy).

Would you even believe the next story “No Comment” by Ayse Devrim is another favourite of mine? It’s a campy, hilarious story about a trans woman Maryam who is a recent recipient of a uterus transplant in the near future. A la Jane the Virgin she finds herself mysteriously pregnant and acquiring mythic Virgin Mary status; unfortunately Maryam is, to quote her friend, “single, surly, and sauced” and about as far from holy as the good wholesome Christian woman whose uterus she inherited was righteous. She also has no time for the bullshit government doctors who want to study her as a medical curiosity. In the ARC of Meawhile Elsewhere that I read, “No Comment” was the first story and it was what made me fall immediately in love with the book.

Did you think Sybil Lamb’s novel I’ve Got a Time Bomb was a work of absolute genius that the world will never fully appreciate like I did? If not, please read that book now, and then you can fully appreciate being able to dive back into her mind in her contribution to Meanwhile Elsewhere. She’s at it again, with her story “Cybervania,” a gloriously grotesque and truly bizarre post-apocalyptic cyber punk vision of the future that I can only describe as quintessentially Sybil Lamb. The only thing that disappoints me about “Cybervania” is that it isn’t accompanied by Lamb’s unique, trippy visual art like her novel is.

Fantasy is definitely in the minority in Meanwhile Elsewhere in favour of science fiction, which perhaps speaks to the more ample possibilities and revolutionary potential in reaching towards the future in SF versus the more conservative tendencies of fantasy, so often looking to the past for inspiration. There are, however, two amazing fantasy stories, “Matchmaker” by Dane Figueroa Edidi and “Notes from a Hunter Boy” by Beckett K. Bauer that I want to mention. I can perhaps give “Matchmaker” no better endorsement than say that it reminded me of the best of season 6 of Buffy, but with a Black trans witch for a main character. “Notes from a Hunter Boy” is a unique historical fantasy, told in the form of a diary discovered eons later, in which the concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are truly turned on their heads.

For another taste of Canadian urban centres in trans speculative fiction like Bridget Liang’s piece, see Morgan M Page’s short but powerful “Visions.” Like many of the other stories in the anthology, it centres on relationships between trans people; this time it’s a trans man who’s been haunted by visions of a trans woman’s future suicide which he has been destined to intervene in. This destiny has haunted him and shaped his whole life, bringing him to the slushy streets of Montreal from rural Vermont. When the moment finally arrives, Page takes the reader somewhere quite unexpected from the usual “don’t jump” narrative.

I have, of course, saved my very favourite for last: “Imago” by Tristan Alice Nieto. This story wrecked me, breaking me apart but then putting me back together, albeit in a bittersweet way. It made me cry. It is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Tabitha lives in a future world where an epidemic that came to be known as the “White Death” has decimated humanity. A wonder drug called “Revivranol” was at first heralded as a miracle in response to the White Death and other kinds of dying, extending

viability for cardiopulmonary resuscitation from thirty minutes to twenty-four hours, and allowed the body to function in spite of massive physical trauma…But soon the promise gave way to reality. Those we revived came back broken, cold and distant…it was usually a confused and perverse confrontation as people tried in vain to locate a tiny fragment of the person they once knew within the talking pile of human remains that wore their lover’s skin.

This is the setting for this remarkable story, which integrates tidbits of butterfly biology, superstitions about and prejudice against people with albinism, grief over lost love, the impossibility of conceiving of your own death, the peculiarities of memory, and the cruel directions capitalism leads people in dire circumstances as well as those willing to capitalize on the miseries of others. Midway through the story Tabitha thinks:

I can’t shake the feeling that I should feel something more than mild disappointment at the thought of being dead. I think about all the things I never got to do, all the people and places I’ll never see again, but it doesn’t stir anything. Perhaps it’s a blessing, perhaps I’m protecting myself from the immeasurable cognitive weight of truly comprehending my own death.

You will weep and be forever changed by “Imago,” I promise.

There are so many more amazing stories that I didn’t have space to mention, like “After The Big One” by Cooper Lee Bombardier, about surviving an apocalyptic earthquake with an intergenerational trans and queer group of misfits; “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance” by M Tellez, a story that beautifully imagines a sentient non-human, non-gendered being with rhizomatic thinking; “Schwaberow, Ohio” by Brendan Williams-Childs, featuring an autistic trans man living in a future where biotechnological advancements threaten the existence of trans people and neurodiversity; “The Gift” by Ryka Aoki, a story about a future so lovely and trans positive it’s heartbreaking to realize we are not there yet; “Thieves and Lovers” by Emma Addams, a tale of old Hollywood glamour and future holographic selves; “Angels Are Here to Help You” by Jeanne Thornton, a delightfully weird and funny space tale about leaving Earth on a spaceship you built yourself and financed with money you embezzled from your cat.

I am so excited for the future of speculative fiction and trans fiction and that very special intersection of trans speculative fiction that Meanwhile Elsewhere represents. Get this book, and get it now.

[Strong warnings for sexual and physical violence, as well as emotional abuse and suicide in a significant amount of the stories.]

Posted in Asian, Canadian, disability, Erotica, Fantasy, Fiction, Lesbian, Montreal, Non-Canadian, paranormal, Queer, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine, Trans Masculine, Transgender | Tagged | 4 Comments