9 Intimate, Revelatory Books About Queerness
Recent must-reads outside your basic heterosexual canon.
This year, we’ve seen a wave of diversity-minded book campaigns, and I, for one, am here for it. The literary canon, long fortressed by texts written by cisgender, white men, seems to, finally, be opening up.
In March, the literary website and non-profit organization Electric Literature launched its Read More Women campaign, accompanied by the the #readmorewomen hashtag, in which it challenged people to increase their intake of texts written by women and non-binary authors. And at the end of October, Glory Edim, founder of the Brooklyn-based Well Read Black Girl book club and online community, will publish a collection of essays on the importance of seeing yourself in literature. Her literary community organizing advocates for representation of Black writers via the hashtag #wellreadblackgirl.
Even if texts written by marginalized people still aren’t being noticed by the New York Times book review, it seems that readers are beginning to seriously consider the identities of the authors they read. As I considered diversifying my own reading, I wondered: what queer books did I read this year? And what queer books would I recommend to someone looking to intentionally read fewer straight, cis men?
The list that follows is by no means exhaustive—there are hundreds more books published over this past year alone by queer and trans authors. Rather, it’s meant to introduce you to a few important new queer voices writing across different genres; texts not only written by people who identify as LGBTQ, but those that subvert traditional themes of gender and sexuality, queering such literary narratives.
Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote
(Memoir/Essay Collection, Arsenal Press, reissued 2018)
Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide queers the genre of memoir, blending a series of first-person essays and song lyrics with drawings of tools and electrical circuits and diagrams of knots, bolts, generator parts. Aside from illustrations, each essay is punctuated by pages with two-sentence truths about the reality of life as a non-binary person:
“I’m waiting in the insurance place to renew my plates, along with a woman and her daughter, about five years old. The kid keeps talking to me, asking me stuff, showing her Lego helicopter. ‘Leave her be,’ the mom says. The kid looks right at me. ‘I don’t think he is a lady,’ she says. ‘I think he is a man with very pretty eyes.’”
The essays narrate Ivan’s experiences in bathrooms; relationships with their family as they come of age in Canada’s Yukon and come out; and the ways they help their family come to terms with their non-binary gender identity. We learn that, as Coyote matures, so does their understanding of themself, to the point where they pivot careers: from electrician (hence the diagrams) to performer to vocal LGBTQ advocate.
Tomboy Survival Guide is a critical read for this moment, offering a candid account of Coyote’s attempts to subvert a gender-binary world. “Writing about my tenderest bits is the only way I know how to have power over them,” they write.
Little Fish by Casey Plett
(Fiction, Arsenal Press, 2018)
Casey Plett’s Little Fish is a novel for the winter season: stark, brutal, engrossing. Set in Winnipeg in the months of November and December, the book follows protagonist Wendy Reimer, a 30-year old trans woman who is trying to make sense of her grandmother’s death, her friends’ severe mental health issues (along with her own), and the relationships—some fleeting, some forever—within her trans community. In a frozen Winnipeg winter, Wendy survives: walking outside when it is below zero out; taking other forms of work when her day job dissolves; relying on the laughter, support, and care of friends as she attempts to unpuzzle the pieces of a potentially queer family legacy and cope with the trauma of intimate loss. In this debut novel, author Casey Plett gives us a queerness uplifted by community and anchored by an unforgettable narrator—both wounded and wonderful—whose fire we will remember long after winter thaws into spring.
While Standing in Line for Death by CA Conrad
(Poetry, Wave Books, 2017)
CA Conrad’s most recent collection of poetry While Waiting in Line for Death, is a book of queer ritual. Conrad endured a devastating loss in 1998: their boyfriend, Earth, was brutally murdered right outside of their rural, queer community in Tennessee. Though the police called Earth’s death a suicide, Conrad and the coroners knew otherwise; Earth was raped, beaten, and killed. The book is part creative practice, part poetry; Conrad explains their approach to coping with loss through (soma)tic poetry ritual, and follows with the poems that were born from those rituals. They write, “(Soma)tic poetry rituals provide a window into the creative viability of everything around us, initiating an extreme present.” The proposed practices range from the simple act of burning sage and giving gratitude, to the more enchanted: witch dance workouts, regret-reversal spells, sunrise and sunset reiki. Conrad provides healing, hopeful activities for becoming present to your inner spirit and outer trauma, and pages of poetry that attempt to harmonize the two.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
(Fiction, Rescue Press, 2016)
Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is an ambitious text that wrestles with the difficult reality of Paul, a queer shape-shifter in the 90s. Yet, for all of the layered themes the book clutches, it is quite easy to read; the writing is short, simple, and immersive, and the narrator is relatable, genuine, and vulnerable. As Paul is perceived by different people—across Iowa City, Provincetown, San Francisco—he is read as different genders, and fluidly slips into those identities, pursuing romances that turn him, at times, gay, lesbian, or queer. Although the heavy lifting of the book is in its exploration of identity, it reads as a timeline of Paul’s life: first he went here, then she went there; sometimes he’s a he and sometimes she’s a she. The casualness and irreverence with which gender is treated confirms what Lawlor knows themself: that the gender binary is constructed, and, ultimately, irrelevant.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
(Short Stories, Greywolf, 2017)
Reading Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is like taking lesbian-laced LSD and then walking around your neighborhood, encountering all of your previous sexual partners, then returning home to watch television and seeing the media’s deranged narratives about womanhood, violence, danger, and sexuality. Machado perfectly blends realism with science fiction. In the short story “Inventory,” for instance, the narrator is indulging in the typical millennial past time of listing all of her previous sexual partners—except in her world, the apocalypse has arrived an the human race is slowly going extinct. And in “272 Views of Law & Order,” Machado offers up capsule synopsis of seasons of the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, brilliantly flipping the script on the trope of dead girls and violence and allowing us to fully see how how much those problematic narratives seep into our public consciousness. The collection is strange, no doubt, and, with its descriptions of sex and sexual tension, simultaneously tantalizing.
Black Queer Hoe by Britteney Black Rose Kapri
(Poetry, Haymarket Books, 2018)
Britteney Black Rose Kapri’s Black Queer Hoe is a collection of poetry written in a critical and caustic voice, tweets embedded throughout. It is the ultimate intersectional manifesto, or as Kapri describes it within: “A celebration of my Blackness, my Queerness, my Hoeness, none of which exists without the other.” With titles such as “haiku for reparations,” “annual reminder of how to deal with Black face on Halloween,” “a reading guide for white people reading my book,” “for colored boys who considered gangbanging when being Black was too much” (which is the Juvenile Detention Center’s rules and policies rewritten to unmask their overt racism), the poetry very explicitly challenges white supremacy and hetereo-patriarchy. And although one of Brittany Black Rose Kapri’s poems is titled “queer enough,” her queerness is never up for question—and certainly not by you, her reader, whom she lovingly provokes. The poem, like the collection itself, is an interrogation of the reader: how will this shit-talking language land? How will you find yourself, immersed in her Twitter storm of truths? Will you run away or will you remain to confront the truth?
When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri
(Fiction, Penguin Random House, 2018)
Camille Perri’s When Katie Met Cassidy is every bit as saccharine as its cover of pink tones and lips suggests. It’s not a spoiler to say that there’s a happy ending; Perri has said her intention was to write a romantic comedy to which she could relate. And the author has successfully written a gay, relatable 21st century fairy tale, in which Katie, broken-hearted after her moronic fiancé dumps her for a close friend, meets and falls for Cassidy, a butch lawyer whose confidence in always landing the woman she wants wavers after meeting Katie. The lightness and ease of a lesbian romance that does not upend any trauma is a refreshing, upbeat relief. Plus, the romantic pursuit is replete with luscious descriptions of the cosmopolitan outings of rich New Yorkers, hot lesbian sex, and the neighborhood lesbian bar where it all takes place. When Katie Met Cassidey resonates—and not just for queers. Its pursue-or-be-pursued tension will have you reading until the happy ever after.
Women by Chloe Caldwell
(Memoir, HarperCollins, reissued 2018)
Chloe Caldwell’s Women also follows the arc of a formerly-straight-identifying woman who falls for a masculine-presenting lesbian. This book, however, does not follow any traditional tropes of romance, instead braiding the literary genres of memoir, fiction, and auto-fiction. This slim volume tells the story of Caldwell’s heartbreak over Finn, an older, sexy woman who shows up to one of Caldwell’s readings and never leaves her inbox after. It’s a doomed romance, though; Finn is in a relationship. The tale Caldwell spins is not one of typical unrequited romance—it is much softer, subtler, and more significant. Yes, Caldwell withdraws: eats 7-Eleven pizza in bed, rails against Finn, gets drunk and takes drugs, but she also remains the keenly self-aware, scrutinizing her choices, narrating her obsession, questioning her sexuality and desires. Caldwell offers us a queerness of careful attention, an uncharted and brilliantly detailed exploration of self and sexuality.
Spinning by Tillie Walden
(Graphic Novel, First Second, 2017)
In Tillie Walden’s stunning graphic novel, Spinning, most of the narrative is uncovered in the shadows. The memoir-graphic novel tells the coming-of-age story of Walden as she experiences a home life where she is ignored by her parents and siblings, spends most of her hours competitively figure skating (waking up at 4 AM every morning), and grapples with sharing her sexuality with the people around her. Coming out of the closet is by no means the point or the climax of the book; Spinning is rather about what lurks in the dimness of ourselves, of our desires, of our interactions, even of the page itself. The subtle, true-to-life dialogue and drawings immerse the reader in the tense moments of teenage identity, the un-belonging of it all. Walden’s work is poetic, offering a quiet, revelatory account queerness that every young person should read.