Come join me, Nisha Sharma, Adriana Hererra and Damon Suede for a collaborative talk/Q&A about queer and PoC folks in romance.
CHANGING FACES IN ROMANCE FICTION
Minday, February 11
6:00pm til ?
(because I love invitations that say ” til ?,” so full of undisguised hope! Like, when will it end? We dont know because it will be so awesome!)
Where my New Yorkers at?
I interviewed performance artist (you’ll see why that’s insufficient) Miguel Gutierrez, and you should absolutely read bout it here!
I’ll be at the NELA/RILA conference book fair at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Warwick, RI this Mon-Tues. Come to the Interlude Press booth and say hi to me and authors Jen Sternick & Tom Wilinsky.
REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember (September 13, 2018); Interlude Press/Duet Books, 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.
The Navigator’s Touch is the continuation of the story begun in The Seafarer’s Kiss; although you can read this one all on its own without reading the first book, why would you? I mean, more books, amIright? You can read my review of TSK here if you’d like—for brevity, I won’t sum that up now. Instead, I’ll tell you that while the first novel is told from the mermaid Ersel’s point of view, this novel is told from her human lover Ragna’s point of view. Ragna is a fierce warrior on a quest to find Ersel, the mermaid/Kracken (a punishment by Loki) who rescued Ragna when…
Let me back up. I’m going to be brief, because the novel itself contains enough of the backstory for you to understand what’s happening (and, even better, you can read the first book, The Seafarer’s Kiss, which is a new telling of the original Norse myth which Disney’s The Little Mermaid bastardized). Ragna is fierce. She’s also got a very special gift (she’s “gods-touched”): her arm contains a tattoo-like map that changes as she moves or as she wills it. In other words, she can find her own way from or to anywhere in the world, and she can even use the map to locate towns, people, things of value. She’s not the only one with this gift, and in an effort to kidnap the children who might possess it, a warlord burned her village and killed the adults (including Ragna’s family). Ragna’s own cousin is among the kidnapped, and part of Ragna’s quest in this novel is to find her.
Along the way, she falls in love with a mermaid, becomes captain of a sea vessel (and its disloyal crew) stolen from her captor, outsmarts the trickster god Loki, and does it all one-handed (she’s got a hook to replace a severed hand). It reminds me of that old saw about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Ragna does everything the other sea captains do, but as a woman and with one hand. I’m pretty sure she wears boots, though.
Before I address the story itself, let me quickly address how it’s told: it’s a page-turner. The narrative voice melts into the story, and Ragna is such a smart, powerful character, one can’t help but want to hear her speak more and more. Neither overly dry nor too flowery, the prose just whistles through the adventure.
This strikes me as a particularly feminist novel. Not simply because it stars a woman in charge (though that certainly helps), but because it’s the story of Ragna figuring out how to be in charge without being oppressive, how to wield power without dumbly blunt force.
The love story between Ragna and Ersel, too, seems feminist: they are each independent beings who love each other, but that love does not cancel out all other duties or desires. There is longing, and there is cleaving (both to and from), and there is desire and beauty, but this is not a story in which everything is put aside for the romance, in which romantic love conquers all. It’s a story in which love helps the heroine conquer all, but it’s not just romantic love. There’s self-love, familial love, loyalty, friendship, intelligence (that is a way of loving the world, you know)… all of it drives Ragna, and all of it helps her get where she winds up.
I’ve read numerous reviews of this book that exclaim over its violence and, yes, there’s some intense violence described, but really, how do you read a book about pillaging pirates and war and not see the violence coming? It would be disingenuous if there were none, I think. When I think back on some of the “classics” I had to read in junior high and high school, I have to laugh at the statement that young folks should not read anything violent because that’s not how we did it in the 1980s. I also remember lots of repression, lots of denial on the part of adults who told me that the violence I experienced in real life (as a daughter, as a young woman in the world) was not fit to be discussed, or did not happen, or was not a worthy social concern. Denying the violence is a big lie, and it sets young women (in particular) up to fail when they inevitably meet it. How much better, then, to give them the gripping story of strong heroes like Ragna who meet, survive, and even triumph over that violence?
REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters (June 7. 2018); 320 pages. Available from Duet Books, an imprint of Interlude Press, here.
When I was coming up, queer YA was not available. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my adolescence was in bloom, I felt lucky to have access to Daniel Pinkwater’s quirky, witty novels and novels like Forever, Ahbra (by Mary Anderson) as an alternative to my mom’s old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. I never dreamed books could be written about real kids—queer, of color, smart, struggling, complex reflections of me and the other kids I knew.
As an adult, I’m not one of those avid YA readers. I’ve moved on, and there’s so much not-good YA out there… I like complexity in a novel, darkness, a bit of grit and no melodrama, and that order seems in short supply in most YA. All this is to say I’m not a die-hard YA reader like some adults I know, but I can really appreciate a great YA story when I come across one.
Found one, friends!
Running with Lions by Julian Winters hits the spot for me. It’s many things that did not interest me as a kid: boy MCs, sports… well, I guess that’s the list. Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully-written, softly suspenseful queer young-person romance, by turns tender and stubbly and gently humorous. It’s not deliberately wallowing in ignorance of the world (which is what turns me off about many YA books—young folk know what’s going on, and they feel it intensely; no need to pander, authors).
Sebastian Hughes goes to training camp for his high school soccer team, the Bloomington Lions, and comes face-to-face with his former childhood bestie, Emir Shah, with whom Sebastian had fallen out of touch. Emir is sort of a social reject, both because he’s crusty and scowly, and because he’s not very good at soccer. (I marveled-cheered because the fact that he’s gay and brown and Muslim did not factor at all into his exile. I mean, finally.) At first Emir pushes everyone—including Sebastian—away. But Sebastian persists, offering to help Emir train and practice at night, alone, on the field. Sebastian has to fight through that prickly exterior to get to the soft, nougaty center that is the Emir he remembers, but it winds up worth it; slowly, Emir cracks open.
Sebastian, who identifies as bisexual, has never been in love with a boy before, but he falls for Emir (who has). The rest of the novel is a slow, careful unfolding of their relationship, little advances and retreats, skittish acceptance and unpredictably cold rejections. It’s rather like watching someone try to trap a feral cat, but in a good way.
What, perhaps, appeals to me most now, as an adult looking back, is that not only is the queer romance front and center, respected for its complexity and not just used for its queerness, but the major problem in the romance isn’t homophobia, it’s history and mistrust and other interpersonal complications. Queer people, in other words, get to be just as interesting as straight ones, and we get our full and difficult-human story here. The other players don’t care about the queerness, and even the coach is supportive and doesn’t pay mind to his players’ sexuality or masculinity. (How different from Mr. S–, the coach at my high school who giggled and eye-rolled his way through teaching sex ed like a frat boy and never once even mentioned queerness.)
It’s radical that a queer love story for young folk is not centered on homophobia. (In fact, much of the team is either gay or bisexual, and sexuality is hardly an issue.) I mean, it’s really, truly radical. Everyone—kids and adults—needs stories like this.
In some ways, this idea (that a teen’s queerness is not an issue, that there are these queer-majority sports team-havens for kids) seems like a fantasy. Yet all fiction is fantasy (that’s kind of the point). Every single novel contains a made-up world and made-up people. As long as we’re fantasizing, how about a new fantasy with better values, one that doesn’t depress or scare the boop out of young queer kids just coming into their own, one that gives them something to dream about and wish for?
School librarians, please grab this book for your stacks. Parents, slip this into your kid’s bookshelf. Request it at your local bookstore and library. Tell them an unathletic old queer lady sent you.
REVIEW: He Mele a Hilo: A Hilo Song by Ryka Aoki (May 5, 2014); Topside Signature; 342 pages.
As a U.S. mainlander and a non-dancer, I don’t know much about hula or Hawaii, so this novel, at first, felt kind of beautiful-mystical-foreign to me. It follows primarily the lives Noelani Choi and members of her halau (a troupe of hula dancers) in Hilo, Hawaii. But the aura of strangeness soon dissipated, and I was pulled in to the jostling constellation of relationships in which the novel’s webbed. Hula may be the presenting situation, but it’s not the point here; thinking about hula helps sharpen and guide the point, and the novel is certainly generous enough to allow the uninitiated to understand what’s what, but it isn’t the point itself; or it’s not, at least, the only point.
In fact, one of the loveliest things about this novel is that it’s generous. The reader is admitted into the secret lives and points-of-view of several very different characters, and it becomes almost a Babel of voices (in several variations of English and pidgin), perspectives and temperaments and motivations, yet the reader is always drawn near, made able to understand and empathize with the characters.
At heart, it feels like a folktale: specificity and detail vibrate on a larger, more universal scale. The novel pulls together a sensual celebration of food, dance, love and nature, mixes it with some magical strangeness and reality-rule-bending, and makes it all hum together as something larger, both pleasurable and meaningful.
REWVIEW: “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy” at Bard College
Yesterday my wife took a vacation day from being a therapist and I took a vacation day from… being… well, being, and she whisked me up through the pouring rain to the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson to watch “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy,” a queer cabaret hosted by Justin Vivian Bond.
The cabaret was held in what I assume was a permanent performance space at Bard, built to look like a giant tent (but with solid doors and walls), a space so lush and glittery and fairy-lit that our seatmates were debating whether it called to mind a circus tent or the set of I Dream of Genie. I kind of think it was the latter, just without the o-shaped velvet couch.
Mx. Bond hosted the evening, and so was less present on stage than I’d wished (I kept hoping for a song or something, but Bond graciously played empressarix to other queer acts). I’ve been a fan of Mx. Bond’s since seeing Shortbus, the heartbreaking film by John Cameron Mitchell in which Mx. Bond was featured, so I came ready for v. But the featured acts were so fun I hardly cared Bond wasn’t the star.
First, I was beside myself a little bit when I spied Leigh Crow (Elvis Herselvis, one of my longtime Drag King heroes) waiting in the wings, who came onstage twice to croon out some Presley hits. Herselvis/Crow is a dreamy butch king/King who can really belt and kind of sparkles an oozy, smarmy-but-magnetic sexuality on stage. I’m not sure if it’s the actually-beautiful-and-powerful singing or the wink-wink type of charm that gets me every time, but I’m got. If I were thinner or more spry, my panties would have dropped. As it was, I just settled for a hot flash and a bit of starstruck fangirling. (I’m old enough now at 47 that perhaps it’s the wrong term… maybe “fanwomaning” is better?) (No. No, it is not.)
Davon, a dancer who lip-synched/danced to some iconic singers, moved Mx Bond (and me) to tears with a beautiful performance about having been hooked on Crystal Meth. Davon danced to music from Porgy and Bess and an aria sung (I think) by Jessye Norman, among other music, and all of It had resonance around Blackness and queerness, and I got good and shattered. One often gets into trouble trying to articulate what’s going on in art… and why would you, when it’s so rightly said by the art itself? I just nod: yes, yes.
As a disabled person who had a youth of able-bodiedness, I always get a bit choked up when I see beautiful dance—that a body can be and do what the body on stage is and does (the agility, the self-possession, the body-as-expression-and-creation) just gets me, it’s so perfectly queer and beautiful. So when the next act, Sadonna—which is a contraction of “Sad Madonna”—came onstage, it was an immense, throat-lump-melting relief. I mean, I was raised by a midwestern white American and an image-conscious Greek immigrant, so public crying is absolutely out of the question.
Sadonna does sad versions of classic Madonna songs—both musically right on and intelligently funny. The leader, Miguel Gutierrez, is funny, but he’s also a beautiful singer; the group (Gutierrez, plus the three Slutinos–Sad Latino boys backup singers) manages to pull to the surface the mournful potential of Madonna’s poppy bubblegum, but balances it with clever wit and the relief of pure camp.
Star Amerasu sang original dance music—confident, bouncy, hair-flipping fun. I think Amerasu might have a great career as a songwriter; there were some nice pop complexities and textures in there.
I flipped a little when Big Dipper was called to the stage—a former student introduced me to his work years ago, and I fell in love with the brainy sendup of that crotch-grabbing, girl-objectifying, hypermasculinist brand of hiphop he ironizes by unabashedly queering it. Apparently, he gets accused often of being “dirty” because his lyrics are explicit in their objectification of bearish men and a frank glorification of gay sex, but it strikes me as a kind of performance art he’s doing, getting folks to balk at the openly queer sexuality when a similar frank-but-hetero sexuality is accepted (perhaps even expected or required) in mainstream hiphop.
That was the roundup of folks, and it was rightly-paced and emotionally-balanced. And it was, as I said, a happy relief to be back in a queer space. Of course, as do many queer spaces nowadays, it held its share of straight folk, most of them white and older and coupled. What felt like a steep ticket price to a lesbian couple may have felt like nothing to middle class established straight couples, and may have been unimaginable to younger queers, but swinging it felt well worth the scrimping we’ll do in other expenses to balance it. And the mainstream folks who were there—the older, white married couples—seemed down and eager to support the performers.
Here’s the gyst: seek out these artists online or, when you can, in live performance. Follow Mx. Bond for new ideas and empressarix services. And more generally, when you find a queer artist whose work moves you, tell them.
REVIEW: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Reprint edition: April 9, 2017); Broadway Books; 306 pages.
I’ve known of Jennifer Finney Boylan as an activist and scholar from my days as a professor teaching queer theory. What somehow eluded me all those years was that she also writes fiction. I discovered this quite by accident when I happened upon mention of her novel Long Black Veil (yep, the title is a nod to Johnny Cash) and picked it up, mostly because I knew who she is and I was really curious.
I’m glad dumb luck led me there, because I stumbled on a book I wound up really loving.
Long Black Veil is a sort of mystery, though It’s not a whodunnit by any means. It’s about a group of young folks who get lost in a creepy old jail and one of them winds up gone and is later found dead. There’s suspense for a while, until you find out who was responsible for her death and why, but that isn’t really the point. It’s about the fallout, the way all the other characters deal with loss, guilt, survival and moving on.
This horrible moment in the past is juxtaposed against the narrative of a trans character who, rather than come out to her friends as trans, winds up disappearing herself in a flaming car wreck so she can establish her transition and emerge a new person, with a new name and a new life.
These two enormous events, both in some measure traumatizing, wind up informing each other—at least for this reader. Judith, who is trans, winds up in a similar situation to those who are guilty of bringing about her friend’s death—she must “kill” her former boy self, then cover up her tracks and keep the secret forever, even from those she loves most (like her husband and son). In doing so, she loses connections to her former friends, and must grieve in secret, telling neither her former friends nor her new family. She winds up alone and in pain, and must struggle with the fear of losing (or having lost) those she loves if ever her true, whole self is discovered.
I pounced on this book not only because Boylan wrote it, but because the description I’d read suggested it is queer magic realism—a category I had, up until recently, thought I may have invented. It just seems so right to me, since magic realism is about the natural and the fantastic juxtaposed, the realness of something that we believe cannot be real; and since magic realism’s initial incarnation was as a form of protest against repressive political systems. But please, reader, please gliss past my hubris here, because it turns out queer magic realism is a thing already.
The novel has elements of this—it is a beautifully strange landscape of events, ripped up by the frequent intrusion of the everyday. Sometimes there are ghosts and visions, and sometimes they are just mirrors—characters are haunted by the ghosts of their pasts, but also by visions of themselves. Dead folks are not the only ghosts, friends, and they’re often not the ghosts most haunting us.
Perhaps I’m not making it sound so, but the writing is quite deft, very smart, and entirely believable, no matter how strange it gets. At its heart, it’s about loss and rejection—both of friends and family, but also of one’s history, one’s identity, one’s self. It’s about how you remake your life in the face of gut-ripping change. It’s about how you grow into newness, and what happens to the old parts of you when you do grow into something new.