Interview with a Queer Reader: Anna Marie Talks Life-Changing Queer Books Like ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT and Being Forced to Read Books by White Cis Straight Men

August’s queer reader of the month is Anna Marie! They describe themselves as a “mess of confusion always,” as well as a “red sick witch, a crip, a queer, a person who is very obsessed with nouns because they lack emotional/mental stability.” Anna’s not sure about their identity, but knows they have a lot of Sapphic queer feelings, that their favourite food is chocolate, and that they love making art. Anna’s also a survivor of sexual violence and a Capricorn in both their moon and sun signs. Connect with Anna on Twitter and on Instagram at @girlhowl.

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Keep reading to find out about Anna’s life-changing books, including Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Color Purple, and She of the Mountains, as well as their idea for a queer femme Rapunzel re-telling and being forced to read books by cis white straight dudes when you’re doing a literature degree.

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 think the first book I remember reading that counts as a proper queer book (i.e the queer character is the main character rather than a side one) was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson which my parents had a copy of! Both my mum and my dad loved books so I was encouraged to read – but I don’t think my dad quite realised what he had done when he introduced me to it! The book opened my eyes to these new possibilities of being: I just remember reading it with such ferocity and intensity. It has changed my life truly. I am so glad it exists; its a book so full of passion and resilience!!

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

Okay so obviously we’ve been over Oranges, so I guess I would say The Color Purple by Alice Walker which is just an amazing, heart-bleeding book (massive content warning for sexual and physical violence though). This was another book that I read with an intense focus and an intense connection – I think I also didn’t quite realise how and why I connected with Celie whilst I read it until later on (although I could never entirely connect with Celie’s experience because I’m a white person) – so it’s a book that has unfurled more once I finished it.

Then last summer I read Trumpet by Jackie Kay which I just thought was absolutely incredible. It’s beautifully written, so poetic and vivid! It follows the story of a trans guy jazz musician who has just died and the fact he was trans gets out to the media. So the story has multiple points of view, from family members to this horrible journalist who wants to write an exploitative book about him. There is some transphobia in the book via the perspectives and parts made me uncomfortable in a very real way. There’s lots of misgendering and slurs in this book but I felt like Kay wasn’t agreeing with these viewpoints and the ending allows power and a voice to the right people! (Trying not to give away spoilers!)

I read She of The Mountains and it also probably changed my life! I love Vivek Shraya and it was wonderful and refreshing to read a book about bisexuality and biphobia (from both the queer community and straight people in general). The book is about identity, self love, relationships and it’s all told in parallel to a reimagining of Hindu mythology. The book also has really cool illustrations and a very experimental use of language. It helped me to start to untangle by own bi/sexuality/romanticism and the biphobia and shame I felt coming at me from all around.

Lastly I think I would pick Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde. First of all Audre is such an amazing writer, activist, person, poet. Secondly I just really enjoyed this biomythography of her life! Its so tender and bittersweet and it recounts her childhood memories up until I think when she is around 22. It’s a really touching, sensual, poetic and nostalgic book which just can’t help but fill me up with softness and queer feelings.

Also I wanted to write a bonus shout out to Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comic Anthology!! It’s so full of queer witch goodness!!

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

seawitchThis is definitely something that fluctuates a lot to be honest! Because my identity and what is important to me shifts there isn’t really one book that bests reflects me! Especially cos my soul is so traumatised!  But I think a mix of She of the Mountains with one of the comics in Power & Magic called “Your Heart is an Apple” by Nivedita Sekar and with a bit of Sea-Witch Volume 1 by Moss Angel Witchmonstr mixed in.

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

A book about a sometimes sex-repulsed survivor of sexual violence who is queer and femme and has long hair and finds a beautiful girl who understands and they live together in a Rapunzel-like tower with a dragon who looks after them and it’s lovely, also they practice witchcraft and they grow their own food on the roof of the tower! When the dirt falls down villagers collect it because they know it is full of lovely Sapphic Power and it will nourish them and their lives too. (I think I should write this now I’ve written it out here!!)

And, a book about an aro ace dragon void girl. Where are you??? I need you!!!

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

Booktube! Twitter!! Blogs like yours and Fuck Yeah Lesbian and Bi Literature! Goodreads!! Plus I’m always searching and on the hunt. If I had the choice I would only read queer and trans books but I do a literature degree that is full of boring old straight white men and I am forced to read their outdated, offensive, and overrated books. I think also for me, it’s quite easy to find queer books in general because I only have queer friends at this point and if one of us reads a book we love we will share it out to everyone!

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?

As I said I mostly have queer friends some of whom also do boring literature degrees and love to talk about all the books we want to read that aren’t by, about, and for white straight cis men. I feel like the communities on Booktube and Goodreads and Twitter that I have found (like We Need Diverse Books and the Lesbrary) are really helpful and make participating really fun! I think it can be a little stressful that people might judge you or your identity on the books you consume but otherwise I really enjoy it!

Thanks so much for sharing with us Anna! It’s so great to hear about how life-changing queer books can be for queer people. It reinvigorates me to get out there as a librarian and match great queer books with the readers who need them!

Posted in Bisexual, Interview with a Queer Reader, Trans, Transgender | 2 Comments

August Patreon Update: Survey Results, Future Directions, and New Amazon Affiliate Account

Happy August! I have lots to tell you all in this month’s Patreon update (click on that link if you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say Patreon). First of all, welcome new patrons—there are five of you this month!

You might remember that for the last two months I’ve been periodically reminding you to fill out a little Google survey that I created to get some feedback from you all to help decide what direction I should take this website. 41 of you filled it out, and I am so grateful! Thank you all so much! Here are the important things that I found out from that survey:

  1. A majority of you (60%) think the amount of book reviews I do currently on the site is just right. (I seem to average about 3 reviews a month right now). There was, however, a vocal minority who want more!
  1. Most of you (55%) also think the amount of book lists I currently post is just right, but the minority who want more lists is close behind.
  1. Thoughts on the amount of “Interview with a Queer Reader” posts was neck-and-neck—it was just under half of respondents who wanted more and just under half who thought the amount was just right.
  1. The responses to the last question about what kind of new or infrequent content you want more of was exciting enough to make a graph, so here that is:

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Some of this info I already knew—i.e., lists are always the posts that get a ton of social media sharing, so I knew they were popular. But I didn’t know how many of you were really enjoying the “Interview with a Queer Reader,” so I’m going to consider upping the number of those posts to two a month. Have I mentioned that I am always looking for new people to participate? It is very low time commitment and low stress, as I’ve done all the interviews so far by email (although skype is always an option for those who are keen to do it that way). You can reply in the comments here or send me an email to stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com if you’re interested! Anyone who identifies as queer (any part of the LGBTQ2IA+ spectrum) is very welcome to participate. Also, feel free to spread the word to others who you think might be keen!

It was also a little surprising to see how many people are interested in personal and opinion essays from me. It would be fun to write more of that kind of thing, so I am definitely going to make an effort to brainstorm that kind of writing. News posts (about awards, contests, new publishers and books, etc.) I already do about as frequently as I am aware of things (I mean, it is the queer CanLit world, which isn’t huge), but I am glad to see that lots of you like them. I haven’t been writing much about events, though, so knowing many of you are into that will motivate me to keep those on my radar. Duly noted that most of you aren’t interested in writing by people other than me, so I’m just gonna keep plugging away on my own like I’ve always done. Also, a few of you used this opportunity to give me lovely feedback about what I do on my list and also to request a few specific kinds of lists and other content. Thank you! And know that I’ve put your ideas on my list of future posts.

That readers are interested in interviews with authors especially is something I was expecting, but the interest isn’t as high as I would have thought, so I’m going to assess the feasibility of doing the occasional interview. I’d be more into doing them if a) they didn’t make me quite nervous, and b) they didn’t take a lot of time and work for very little money.

Speaking of money, another thing I wanted to let you all know about is that I signed up for an Amazon.com Affiliate account, mostly just as a kind of experiment to see if it would be worth it. If you don’t know what an Amazon Affiliate account is, it’s basically a system where, using an affiliate account with Amazon, I insert Amazon links to buy books that I talk about on my site. Maybe you noticed that I’ve added links to the titles and cover images of books in a few of my last posts. If someone clicks the link and buys something from Amazon within a day (it can be that specific book or any product on Amazon), I get a small referral fee. It doesn’t cost you any more money, it just sends a bit of money that would otherwise go to Amazon to me instead! I’m not exactly encouraging people to buy books off of Amazon, to be totally honest. I personally never buy books from Amazon and prefer to go to indie bookstores when I do buy new books (which is pretty rare). But I know that lots of people buy books from Amazon for various reasons, so if you already shop on Amazon, you might as well give me a little kickback to help support Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, right? So far I just have the Amazon.com account. If you’d be into supporting me using an Amazon.ca account, let me know! I’m thinking of signing up for that one as well.

This month the winner of the queer book draw is Seed! Congrats, Seed! Here were the choices this month:

Queer Book Giveaway Books

Did you know I wrote three book lists in July? Check out 5 Queer Canadian Beach Reads, 3 Queer Poetry Collections for Tough Times, and 6 New and Upcoming Trans Books! I also reviewed Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, an anthology of queer speculative fiction by Indigenous authors, a bisexual erotic literary novel The Change Room by Karen Connelly, and Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez, a raw, empowering tale about (queer) people of colour. If the idea of lots of (queer and otherwise) sex in a literary novel intrigues you, I wrote more extensively on the topic in one of my Book Riot articles last month, feeling inspired after reading The Change Room: “Where’s the Sex in Literary Realist Fiction?”

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, Kim, Jane, Jakelene, Emmet, Madeline, Heather, Carla, Naz, Laurita, Jason, Jillian, Anton, Shelagh, Priscila, Allison, Ang, James, Seed, Julie, Katherine, Rachel, Samuel, Amy, Sarah, Daniel, Sarah, Chantelle, Al, and Undertheteacup!

Second reminder that if any of you new (or old) folks are interested in being a part of the Interview with a Queer Reader series, write me at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com.

Posted in Patreon

Vivek Shraya and Arsenal Pulp Press Launch Dream Mentorship & Publishing Project for Emerging Writers Who Are Black, Indigenous, & People of Colour

Last month multi-faceted artist Vivek Shraya (author of She of the Mountains, The Boy and the Bindi, and Even This Page is White) and Arsenal Pulp Press announced a dream collaboration:

A mentorship and publishing opportunity
for an Indigenous or Black writer, or a writer of colour,
between the ages of 18–24 living in Canada

VS. Books

The opportunity takes the form of a new imprint at Arsenal run by Shraya called VS. Books. On her website, Shraya explains that the idea behind the name “VS.” emerged from the idea that “it suggests versus, or against the grain, against the mainstream.” The project involves in-depth one-on-one mentorship with Shraya that culminates in a publishing contract with Arsenal and VS. Books slated for spring 2019. When I say in-depth, I mean it: the mentorship includes editorial feedback and writing support; advice and support on so many of the other aspects of writing such as “grant-writing, CV-writing, social media, promotion, organization, self-motivation, the publishing process, touring, performing”; assistance developing a marketing and promotion strategy including a book launch; and an after-publishing debrief to help decide where to go next. The publishing contract also comes with a $1000 royalty advance!

This project is just so beautiful and generous and also so necessary (unfortunately). Although plans for the future of the imprint after its first publication will depend on how the first book goes, the hope is that the imprint would continue to publish a new Canadian writer of colour every year, according to this Quill & Quire article.

Shraya describes in detail what led her to approach Arsenal Pulp Press with the combined mentorship/publication deal collaboration:

as I enter my fifteenth year as a professional artist, I have been reflecting on the kinds of supports I required in the first decade of my career to push through systemic barriers in relation to cultural production in Canada. In particular, I have thought about how my lack of success at acquiring institutional funding required me to have a day job to fund my own work. Working full-time at a day job gave me the kind of economic privilege that allowed me to fund self-publishing my first book, God Loves Hair. For all the criticisms and challenges of self-publishing, I do believe that God Loves Hair—both the book itself and the responses to it—helped solidify my value as an artist and writer worthy of commercial investment.

Vivek Shraya VS Books

Vivek Shraya / image via vivekshraya.com/books

She writes that VS. Books is born out of “recognition of the barriers I faced, and of my desire to support young writers who are Indigenous, Black, or people of colour—in overcoming the barriers to publication they face.” I’m always excited to see what exciting work by authors of colour and/or queer authors Arsenal Pulp Press is putting out (look for a post highlighting their fall titles soon!). But I know I’ll be extra eager to see what book comes out of this partnership, especially given how much of a fan I am of the work Shraya has already done. (Check out my review of Even This Page Is White for evidence!).

For more information on applying for the project, like what kind of deliverables you’ll need to send, go to the VS. Book webpage. Shraya says in the interview with Open Book that she’s looking for “work that is unpredictable and takes risks.” And remember, the deadline is September 15th, so get cracking!

Posted in Black, Canadian, Indigenous, News | 1 Comment

6 New and Upcoming Trans Books You Must Read

img_20170719_191040.jpgMeanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Casey Plett and Cat Fitzpatrick

This big fat anthology due out in September is just so  exciting. It’s a collection of speculative writing from 25 trans writers from the US, Canada, and beyond, from some writers you’ve heard me talk about before, like Sybil Lamb and Trish Salah. There are also a few non-Canadians you might recognize: Imogen Binnie, Jeanne Thornton, Ryka Aoki, and Dane Figueroa Edidi. But there will undoubtedly be others who might be brand new to you, which is one of the best things about Topside Press anthologies. I have a review copy of Meanwhile, Elsewhere that I am very pumped to read. Just looking at the story titles I get all tingly: “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me Laura,” “Using A Treadmill, You Can Run Until Exhaustion Without Moving,” “Themyscira,”—where the Amazons live, in case you haven’t seen Wonder Woman—“Delicate Bodies,” “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance,” and so many more!

Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me by Janet Mock

I mean, if you like trans books and you didn’t know Janet Mock had a new memoir out, I’m not sure what to tell you. In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a bit about Surpassing Certainty. I’m excited about this one, since I thought her first memoir Redefining Realness skipped over a lot from her early years to her present. The book begins just shy of her 20th birthday, when she’s a first generation college student at the University of Hawaii and working as a stripper. The story eventually follows her to New York, where she gets a Masters in Journalism and fights her way into the magazine publishing world. Along the way, relationships and falling in and out of love play a big part in her life. I’m so curious to hear what advice such a successful role model has for that whole “figuring out what you want to do” so many people go through in their twenties.

Margins and Murmurations by Otter Lieffe

If you love dystopian fiction and are looking for gender diversity in the genre, you should definitely pick up Margins and Murmurations, which came out spring 2017. Think The Handmaid’s Tale, but with trans women. The main character is Ash, “a trans woman and healer living in a corner of Europe controlled by a militarized state.” Although Ash’s country used to be a hub of diversity, an economic crash in the 2020s has transformed it into a repressive, state-controlled culture that is decidedly the opposite. Ash and her BFF have escaped to the forest along with other trans folks, queers, and sex workers. When they decide to storm the cities, face their oppressors, and take back what was stolen from them, Ash’s magical ability to time travel—but just throughout her own life—might be the key to their success.

From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom, Kai Yung Ching, and Wai-Yant Li

This picture book is due out this fall from Arsenal Pulp Press is centred around Mui Lan, a shapeshifter gender variant child. They cant’ decide if they want be a girl or boy, a bird or a fish, or a flower or star. Although school is stuff for Mui, whose classmates don’t understand their in-betweeness, their mother is a constant comfort in her refrain: “whatever you dream of / i believe you can be / from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea.” If you know Kai Cheng Thom’s writing, you’ll recognize her lush poetic voice even in that small excerpt. The book promises to be a beautiful affirmation of a mother’s love for her child, no matter their identity.

we're still here trans comicsWe’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology edited by Tara Avery and Jeanne Thornton

Can you believe up until this point there hasn’t been an anthology devoted entirely to comics written, drawn, and edited by trans creators? Editors Tara Avery and Jeanne Thornton set out to fix that with We’re Still Here. The Kickstarter for the project is ongoing until August 18th, with estimated delivery of books slated for January 2018. Happily, it’s already surpassed its goal, by a lot, which means readers are obviously needing a book like this. Snippets of what to expect are: “Trans women pilot giant robots with impeccable synch ratios,” “Toxic masculinity haunts a friendship between a butch lesbian and trans man,” “A devotional essay about angels beyond gender or understanding,” and more! They have tons of samples of artwork on the Kickstarter page too, check them out!

A Place Called No Homeland by Kai Cheng Thom

While you can’t get Kai Cheng Thom’s picture book yet, in the meantime you can get her poetry collection, which came out April of this year, and reread and reread it until From the Stars comes out, because it is just that good. Her poems have strong roots in oral traditions and spoken word, making it so you can really hear them in your mind and heart. They’re tough and tender meditations on family, race, being trans, femininity, trauma, relationships, community, sex, books, and love. She writes: “All i want is to turn my lungs into a glass instrument and let them sing glory to my sisters” and “dear white gay men: / you are neither the face / of my oppression / nor the hands /of my salvation.” You can read my full review here.

Bonus! Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Asian, Black, Canadian, comics, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic, list, memoir, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Queer, Science Fiction, Trans, Trans Feminine, Trans Masculine, Transgender | 1 Comment

5 Canadian Queer Beach Reads

When I say “beach reads,” I mean books that are relatively light-hearted in content, have a writing style that isn’t dense, and are easy to pick up and put down (i.e., don’t have very convoluted plots). You may read these at the beach, lake, and/or pool as you see fit, or also possibly while travelling by car, bus, train, or airplane, or maybe just in your backyard! Wherever you are, you will enjoy these fun, summery books.

Huntsmen by Michelle Osgood

Lesbian werewolves, anyone? This urban fantasy blend with queer feminist romance is set in Vancouver’s lesbian community and starts with a scenario many queer women know all too well: running into your ex at a queer event. Kiara is at drag king night when she is stunned to see her genderqueer ex Taryn (Ryn) on stage. She doesn’t have much time to complain, though, because her friend spots someone with a tattoo of the huntsmen (humans who track werewolves). Since Kiara, her friends, and Ryn are all werewolves, they hightail it out of the club fast. Kiara and Ryn end up being in close quarters again as they hide out from the huntsmen and try to figure out how to deal with them, which, of course, leads to some relationship … reworkings. And some hot lesbian werewolf sex!

Don’t Bang the Barista by Leigh Matthews

Contemporary revamped lesbian pulp with all of the best things about the genre and none of the bad is an obvious strong contender for best queer beach read ever. Also set in Vancouver, Don’t Bang the Barista is wonderfully lighthearted and entertaining but also really smart. British ex-pat Kate is the main character; she’s still getting over her ex, she has a crush on one of the baristas at her favourite café, and she has a more-complicated-than-it-seemed-at-first kind of queer friendship with Cass, a Shane-like lady killer type. When Kate realizes Cass is acting weird about her barista crush Hanna, she can’t figure out where it’s coming from. Is her favourite café that sacred to her? Does Cass like Hanna too? Who will sleep with who? Who will end up with who? Where will the lesbian drama take them? Check out my full review.

This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

This absolutely gorgeous graphic novel is set during the summer in Ontario lake country, giving it a wonderfully summery feel despite some of the heavier content (at least compared to the other books on this list). The book is about two Toronto girls, Rose and Windy, teetering on the edge of teenagehood.  Rose is slightly older than Windy, and is feeling that superior sense of maturity and know-it-allness that only someone who is young can so confidently exude. Rose is also starting to be interested in boys where Windy appears to maybe be a burgeoning little baby dyke. While enjoying their seemingly carefree summer, a lot of stuff is happening in the background of Windy and Rose’s lives, namely an unplanned teen pregnancy all the older teens are talking about and Rose’s mom’s depression. Read my full review here.

The Change Room by Karen Connelly

If your idea of a great beach read is a book with lots of hot lesbian sex but also smart, complex things to say about relationships, then The Change Room is for you. I mean, the blurb on the front cover calls it a “juicy peach of a novel,” after all. It’s a wonderful blend of literary realism and erotica, with just the right amount of both. The central character is Eliza, a Torontonian living a seemingly perfect white middle class life. But she wants more: specifically, sexual and erotic pleasure in her life is seriously lacking. Key a steamy affair with Shar, a younger woman Eliza meets at the community pool who’s fascinating in her own right and representative of so many of the things Eliza feels are missing from her life. In case you missed my recent review, here it is.

All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor

All Inclusive is one of those books that sounds like it couldn’t possibly work on paper but is an undeniably successful and moving novel. Doctor somehow manages to combine some serious questions about race, spirituality, terrorism, and death with a narrative that is also really fun and sexy. Ameera is our main character, a mixed race (Indian and white) woman in her late twenties who’s been working at an all-inclusive in Mexico for years. Since she’s been there, she’s discovered that she’s both bisexual and non-monogamous through sleeping with couples visiting the resort. Ameera’s journey of personal growth is inextricably tied to her sexuality as she also explores her feelings about her lifelong absent father and what she’s going to do with her career moving forward. Doctor doesn’t shy away from writing explicit sex scenes, happily. See my full gushing review here.

Do you have any queer (Canadian) beach reads to recommend? Add them to the comments below!

Bonus! Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Erotica, Fiction, Graphic, Lesbian, list, Mariko Tamaki, paranormal, Queer, Romance, South Asian, Vancouver, Young Adult | 2 Comments

Dignity, Love, and Community in Catherine Hernandez’s Unique Debut Novel SCARBOROUGH

Scarborough is an impressive, ambitious debut novel by writer—among other things—Catherine Hernandez. (She’s also, to quote her website bio, a “proud queer woman of colour, radical mother, activist, theatre practitioner, burlesque performer, the Artistic Director of Sulong Theatre Company and the owner of Out and About Home Daycare”). Set in the city of Scarborough, which is east of Toronto and a large, culturally diverse, low-income municipality, this novel is unique: it’s rare to see a piece of fiction focus on a place and people like those in Scarborough with love and respect. I don’t know if there are any other novels focused so intimately on Scarborough and its people, actually. So for that fact alone, this is a noteworthy Canadian novel. But it’s not only that that makes Scarborough a worthwhile book.

Hernandez takes on the elaborate task of representing the community of Scarborough in all its diversity and truth admirably. The novel is focused intimately on the lives of Scarborough residents, without flinching. In particular, our way into this community is through three children: Bing, a queer Filipino kid with a single mom; Sylvie, Bing’s BFF and whose Mi’kmaq family lives in a shelter; and Laura, a white girl severely neglected by one parent and then the other. Hina, a program facilitator who runs a literacy program out of a local elementary school, serves as a kind of anchor point with connections to these kids and to many of the other characters. It was her story, actually, that I felt the most drawn to, although Hernandez writes compelling narratives for all the characters.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, just like the book doesn’t: Scarborough can be a really tough read. It’s raw, sometimes heavy, and often emotionally hard-hitting. It made me cry. All of the characters, to varying degrees, are struggling to thrive and often to merely survive. Poverty affects them all, as do many intersecting oppressions, including racism, Islamophobia, and sexism. All of this marginalization makes dealing with other struggles a huge uphill battle. For example, Sylvie’s younger brother has autism and their mother, who has the whole weight of her family on her shoulders while she is living in a shelter with a sick husband who can’t work and two young kids, has to work so hard just to get a diagnosis, and then to make the various specialist appointments using the inadequate transit system. When she finally, finally, is able to communicate with her son using cards with pictures on them after trying for months, it’s such a beautiful, triumphant moment because you know how unbelievably hard she has worked to get there. Hina’s later success in dealing with her patronizing, unsupportive, and Islamophobic supervisor feels similarly glorious.

However much all these issues are at the forefront in their lives—how could they not be?—none of the characters are defined by their marginalizations. It’s really a treat to Hernandez weave complex portraits of these people that include but aren’t limited to their identities. Probably the most touching scene in the entire book is also the queerest: we get to watch Bing do a drag karaoke performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in front of his school through his mother’s eyes. It is SO BEAUTIFUL to see how proud she is of him and so affirming to see a mother embracing her child’s queerness so fully.

Catherine-Hernandezjpg.

Catherine Hernandez / Image via catherinehernandezcreates.com

I said this novel is ambitious, and mostly what I mean by that is that Hernandez sets out to tell this Scarborough story from many different perspectives. Each chapter begins with the name of a character and continues the many stories either in the first person or in the third person focused on that character’s perspective. Constructing a book from multiple perspectives is challenging for many writers; while I think overall Hernandez does a great job embodying the different voices—the writing of the emails between Hina and her supervisor are amazingly spot-on—the sheer amount of perspective changes made a disjointed reading experience for me. There were a few times where I was confused about whose perspective I was reading from and what had happened to them previously, despite the names at the top of the chapter. (There were so many characters that I couldn’t remember them all only by name; sometimes I was like, wait, who is so-and-so again?). I loved that so many different characters were included in the novel; it really added to the feeling of community that Scarborough represented. So I don’t think any characters would have been better left out, but some structural changes would have made a more cohesive story. I would have loved to interact with some of the more minor characters through the lens of the characters who get more page time if Hernandez chose to keep the multiple perspectives, or to see the lives of all of the characters represented through an omniscient narrator.

That said, I would still highly recommend Scarborough. It’s so amazing that this Canadian novel tells the stories of so many poor and/or people of colour with such dignity, respect, and affection. That’s something I hope to see so much more of in fiction from Catherine Hernandez and other queer writers in the future.

Bonus! Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, Queer, Toronto | 1 Comment

Sacred Sex, Bisexuality, and the Failings of Monogamy: A Review of Karen Connelly’s THE CHANGE ROOM

Well, the blurb on the front cover that calls Karen Connelly’s The Change Room a “juicy peach of a novel” certainly hits the nail on the head. Just imagine a woman biting into a fresh, ripe peach, with the juice dribbling down her chin, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect from this book and how it’s going to make you feel. That, and it’s going to get you to think about relationships.

The Change Room is a beautifully written literary novel with a lot of graphic, lovingly depicted sex—between women and between men and women—with a lot of attention to the emotional aspects of sex but also just pleasure for pleasure’s sake. In fact, the novel is about searching for erotic and sensual pleasure amidst the weight of mid-life middle class married life with young children. Eliza Keenan is a woman in her early forties who lives in Toronto with her beloved family. She loves her math professor husband Andrew—who is adorably described as “deliciously rumpled.” Eliza runs her own high-end floral business. They have two young sons who are five and six to whom both parents are tenderly dedicated. They own a house (plus a mountain of debt from renovating it). Eliza is on the go from dawn to dusk most days with her family, domestic, and business responsibilities. Really, she is living the middle-class dream. How could she possibly ask for more? Eliza thinks:

You take this peace and love for granted every single day. You abuse it. I don’t take it for granted. I help to create it every single day. I have dedicated my life to it. How self-righteous! You make family life sound like a religious vocation. That’s the smartest thing you’ve said in ages. It is a religious vocation. It requires the same level of dedication.

The “more” that she wants is the exploration of most of the book. And the novel lingers there over and over, unabashedly. The Change Room really got me thinking about the genre boundaries between what we consider “literary” or realist fiction and what gets shelved as erotica and/or romance. After reading the first of many sex scenes, I was astounded to realize that I couldn’t think of any other novel that explored sex in the same way that it delved into so many other aspects of life in minute detail. Why and how exactly did it become convention to fade-to-black or only mention sex briefly in this kind of fiction? The novel at the point of the first sex scene is still introducing you to the character of Eliza and her relationship with Andrew; the way that they have sex is crucial to your understanding of who they both are and the nature of their relationship. It seemed so natural to me to have this in-depth description of sex at that juncture in the story. At the same time, it was incredibly remarkable because it’s so rare in this type of book.

So the sex between Andrew and Eliza is an early, important glimpse into their relationship and characters, yes. But it’s also just really fun and titillating to read, as if it’s a testament to the focus on the importance of pleasure in and of itself throughout the book. And there’s plenty more as the novel goes on: damn, the sex between Eliza and Shar, the woman Eliza meets at the community pool and falls into an affair with, is incredibly hot. It’s wonderful to see a middle-aged woman portrayed as so shamelessly sexual and to see sexuality affirmed as important and, in a way, sacred. I don’t remember the last time I found a book simultaneously so arousing and thought-provoking. The novel is very sexy throughout, but it also doesn’t have that removed-from-the-“real-world” feel that you get often in erotica or romance (not that there’s anything wrong with that; this novel just isn’t that). The sex—lots of sex—is seamlessly integrated into Eliza’s life and the presence of all the sensuality and erotic doesn’t erase the ugliness out in the world either. It’s almost as if sex is part of the rest of her life! (I should mention the novel has some flashbacks to a scene of sexual assault and mentions of childhood sexual abuse).

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly / image via banffcentre.ca

The Change Room reminded me a lot of Zoey Leigh Peterson’s novel Next Year For Sure, which I also loved. (See my full review of that novel here). This isn’t surprising, since the novels have superficial and deep elements in common. They’re both about middle class white people, yes. (Although Next Year For Sure is concerned with a particular crisis of meaning in your late twenties or early thirties, whereas The Change Room is distinctly focused on the middle age of your forties and fifties). But what the novels really share is an intense preoccupation with relationships and an investigation of the failings of heterosexual monogamy.

This is where The Change Room isn’t a racy, escapist story about a woman having a same-sex affair. Or maybe it’s that The Change Room isn’t only that. (Side note: I especially appreciated that Eliza had had another relationship with a woman when she was younger that her husband knew about, so that her queerness or coming out isn’t a focus in the novel at all). It’s a cliché but it’s true here: Eliza has an affair not because she doesn’t love and desire her husband, but because something is missing from the relationship. It’s a symptom that something isn’t working; for Eliza, it’s that her sexual and erotic desires aren’t being fulfilled. One of the major shortcomings of normative straight monogamous relationships is the assumption that one person—your partner—can meet all sorts of different emotional, social, sexual, and erotic needs. It’s nuts when you think about that: what one person can possibly live up to that? And where does that leave the individual’s responsibilities for their own well-being and happiness?

I’ve been focused so far on Eliza, who is the protagonist, after all. But Shar is a fascinating, complex character who could certainly merit being at the centre of her own novel. At first for the readers, like for Eliza, Shar is merely an enigmatic, glamorous, sexy woman. She’s younger than Eliza. She’s Iranian and French and speaks French, English, and Farsi. She’s lived all over the world. She’s a sex worker. She’s frank and open about all kinds of non-normative sexuality. She’s a beautiful fantasy of all the kinds of freedom and openness Eliza doesn’t have in her life. She’s perfect, like all new lovers feel before you really know who they are as a person. But Connelly smartly doesn’t leave us or Eliza there, turning the impulse to exoticization on its head by characterizing Shar in all her complexity and flaws and humanity. One of my favourite lines in the book was when Shar is contemplating her upcoming retirement from sex work to working as a therapist. Connelly writes: “Don’t be afraid, she told herself. It’s just a new life.” It’s an intensely profound yet simple statement, perhaps one that spoke to me particularly as I’m in the same kind of transitional time in my career.

Unfortunately I didn’t read The Change Room at the pool, beach, or lake, which is really too bad because this supremely smart and sexy book is a perfect beach read for the summer. A book to turn you on and get your brain thinking, what more could you want! Don’t be like me! Get yourself a copy of The Change Room, grab your swimsuit, and get yourself to a body of water and sunshine asap.

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Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Erotica, Fiction, Queer, Sex Work, Toronto | 4 Comments