The Best Historical Queer Women’s Fiction: A List of Personal Favourites

Sometimes you just don’t feel like living in your current time and place and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Luckily, we have historical fiction to fill that need.  Personally, I love reading books that were written in ye olden times (i.e, those published before the 1950s-ish) and I have a particular soft spot for Victorian novels.  I love the Brontës, Jane Austen, and all those long-winded descriptions, melodrama, and witty banter.  That said, as a contemporary queer person, (explicitly) queer ladies in such books can be pretty hard to come by, if not impossible.  This is a list for those times when you feel like re-reading Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre, but wish there was just a dash (or more) of girl-on-girl action.  By the way, I’d really like to add more books by and/or about women of colour, so if you have any suggestions in that vein, please let me know!

she risesShe Rises by Kate Worsley

What?

Mid-1700s fiction with navy action and a lady’s maid falling in love with her lady.  Enough said.

Why?

It’s beautifully and compellingly written.  Worsley somehow manages to combine historically accurate rough sailor’s language and dazzlingly gorgeous descriptions.  You really feel like you’re there in the grit and the grime of 18th century life, the saltiness of the sea on a ship and in a port town.  Worsley doesn’t shy away from the grotesque parts of the past either, let me tell you, but there are some fascinating historical details in the book—like how the attics of adjacent buildings were connected so you could sneak from a house into a pub without going outside!  Also, it’s a brilliant meditation on conceptions of gender and sexuality in a time before identities like trans and lesbian existed.

How will it make you feel?

Mesmerized.  Flabbergasted.  Like you learnt a lot of cool shit.

What Else?

If you’re desperately awaiting Sarah Waters’s new book, this should tide you over.

sparrowSilhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

What?

A beautifully understated young adult novel about a curious teenage girl who’s a mix of artist and ornithologist (someone who studies birds).  There’s romance, environmentalism, feminist rebellions, and tomboys!  What more could you want?

Why?

While the main character Garnet is rebellious by 1920s standards, Griffin resists the urge to make her so modern as to disturb the carefully constructed historical accuracy of the book, which deals thoughtfully and realistically with issues surrounding class, gender, race, and sexuality.  This book is smart, and it’s also beautiful:

I looked closely at my edges, my boundaries, the slightly elongated lines that set me apart from lake and sky and island and bird and boat.  I looked closely, pretending that I knew nothing about the girl I saw, pretending that she was some beautiful creature whose borders contained something worth holding in—something unique and extraordinary, something worth saving.  I looked closely, the way I’d taught myself to look at birds, the way I’d learned to look at Isabella, and I saw myself.  Then those scissors were cutting after all, as I snipped out my own image.  I ignored the small ripples of the water and traced the lines that separated me from the world, and the lines that fit me into that world like the piece of a puzzle.

How will it make you feel?

Nostalgic about the first time you fell in love.

What else?

Spread the word about this book!  It’s not very well known and I don’t know why.

last nudeThe Last Nude by Avery Ellis

What?

A tragically doomed romance between two bisexual women in 1920s Paris.  Oh yeah, and one of them is the famous artist Tamara de Lempicka and the other is one of her most famous models, Rafaela Fano.

Why?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll revel in the luscious descriptions of Bohemian 20s Paris, full of artists and writers and glamorous parties and women with smoky eyes wearing blood-red lipstick, gauntlet-length gloves, and smoking using those fancy long cigarette holders.  Also, Rafaela’s journey of re-discovering and embracing her sexuality is beautiful and moving:

And suddenly I remembered a day when I was very small, before my brothers came along.  When my mother went out for groceries, I slopped … oil on the banister and slid down.  I climbed those stairs again and again, to get that feeling: how slick my knickers got, how distinctly I could feel the spreading wings of my little figa, how the shock of bliss pleated through me like lightning.  I had forgotten this kind of eagerness until now, as my body sobbed into Tamara’s hand.  Again, again!  I wanted to crow.  I was a giddy witch on a broomstick.  I was a leaping dog.  I was liquor; I was laughter; I was a sliding girl on a shining rail: something I’d forgotten how to be.

How will it make you feel?

Like you need to start building a time machine right now so you can go hang out with all the queer artsy ex-pats in 20s Paris.

What else?

Maybe write the folks at Lambda Literary and ask why one earth this novel didn’t win the award for lesbian fiction the year it came out.

the salt roadsThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

What?

An ambitious, wide-reaching novel that is at once historical, spiritual, magical, and fantastical, imagining the lives of historical queer black women.  I said historical, but Hopkinson refuses to stay within the bounds of realist historical fiction: there’s a dash of Caribbean voodoo, fourth century Christian pilgrimages, and smoky visions emerging out of a pot of surprising liquids.

Why?

This book is like three in one: you get to read about Mer, a queer midwife, doctor, and plantation slave in 18th century Haiti; Jeanne, a biracial, bisexual dancer living in 19th century Paris; and Saint Mary of Egypt, living in 4th century Egypt and doing sex work.  I’ve never read anything like this novel.

How will it make you feel?

Like you need to educate yourself on all the other amazing women of colour throughout history that have been overshadowed by white dudes.  Also, just in awe of the scope and power of Hopkinson’s work weaving this gigantic, impressive tapestry of narratives. Also, this part might turn you on:

A tiny pulse from Lisette’s thigh beat under my ear: stroke, stroke, stroke.  I contemplated the thick red bush of her jigger, so close to my face.  I breathed her scent in deep.  ‘You smell…’ I said.

‘I smell of cunt,’ she laughed, making my head shake as her body shook. ‘And spit, and that honey dust you wear.  And I have your face powder all over my skin.’  She raised up on one elbow.  I hung on to her uppermost thigh for purchase.  Oh, so warm, so fair, her skin!  She said nothing, just reached a hand to me.  I felt a tug along my scalp.  She was stroking the length of my hair, spread out so all along her legs. ‘Beautiful,’ she breathed.  ‘My beautiful Jeanne.’

What else?

Once you’re done with this one, pick up another of Hopkinson’s amazing books, like Skin Folk or Sister Mine.  You won’t regret it!

name of salomeIn the Name of Salomé by Julia Álvarez 

What?

Two interweaving narratives of mother and daughter: one of the Dominican Republic’s most revered national poets Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila.

Why?

Moving from different parts of the US to the Dominican Republic to Cuba and from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, this striking novel somehow manages to sustain your suspense despite the fact that you know the end of each woman’s story from the beginning.  If you don’t know much about the history of the Dominican Republic or Cuba, like I did, you’ll learn a lot.  This novel is also a moving investigation of what it means to love a land and its people, as well as how to be an artist and a revolutionary.

How will it make you feel?

Astonished at the way that our family and our past live on in us in unexpected ways.  Disoriented—I suspect purposefully on Álvarez’s part—by the narrative point of view switches and style.

What else?

This is the only book by Álvarez that I’ve read.  Has anyone read any of her other work?

Tipping_the_Velvet_UK_coverTipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

What?

This is the mother of queer women’s historical fiction and it’s possibly everything I’ve ever wanted in a novel: a delightful romp through late-Victorian England, its cross-dressing theatre performances, romance, survival sex work, betrayal, and working class revolutions.  It’s actually like a Victorian novel, with its excess, melodrama, style, even structure (the book is divided into three neat sections), except there is hot lesbian sex in it.

Why?

Because this list would never be complete without this book.  Because your life is incomplete if you haven’t read this.

How will it make you feel?

For me, it was like two worlds that I had loved for so long were finally brought together: queer literature and Victorian literature.  The rest of you non-nerds will be cheering Nan King on, revelling in the scandals, and re-reading the sex scenes.

Fall-on-your-kneesFall On Your Knees by Ann Marie MacDonald

What?

This book is the only other on this list that could compete with Nalo Hopkinson’s in ambition and scope.  At over 500 pages, this Cape Breton family saga set in the late 19th and early 20th century is not for the faint of heart (in particular, trigger warning for incest and sexual assault).  In addition to rural Cape Breton, the novel also takes us to Europe during the first world war and New York in all its Jazz-era glory.

Why?

I read this book years ago and some of the scenes haunt me to this day.  It’s one of the most vivid, memorable pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.  It’s a difficult, disturbing book, no question, but one I am very glad that I read and that I plan to re-read some day.  This story is not without its moments of joy, as well.

How will it make you feel?

I’m not going to lie: like you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks.  And yes, it will make you cry.

Posted in Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fiction, Halifax, Jewish, Lesbian, Nalo Hopkinson, Non-Canadian, Queer, Romance, Rural, Sex Work, Trans Masculine | Tagged | 5 Comments

#crazyforcanlit: This Year’s Queer Offerings from the Canadian Publishing Season

So there’s kind of a fun thing happening over at the Giller Prize website. They’ve got a big, pretty picture list of all the Canadian fiction published (and yet-to-be-published) this year and are inviting people to make creative lists with all the Giller-eligible books. My first thought, of course, is: how many queer books are there? Including books both by authors I know are queer and books that have queer content–or appear to, anyway, since I haven’t read some of these, I’ve made a list of ten books.  I feel like I must have missed at least one author, especially since I know pretty much nothing about queer male authors in Canada. In fact, there’s only one male author on my list, and I’m kind of assuming there’s at least some kind of queerness in his novel about polyamorous artists.  So if you know of any omissions, please let me know!

There are some superstars on here, like Dionne Brand!! and Ann-Marie MacDonald!! and Emma Donoghue!!  and Shani Mootoo!!  I can’t believe that four of my favourite authors are all publishing new books this year! And Brand and MacDonald’s books are actually coming out on the exact same day (September 30th, if you want to know). Seriously, sapphic literary goddesses, what are you trying to do to me?  Not to mention that Sarah Waters’s long-awaited new novel is also being released in September.

I’m not necessarily endorsing a book by including it on this list; in fact, I hated Kathleen Winter’s previous novel Annabel and thought it was a horrifically offensive portrayal of an intersex character.  So I’m a best sceptical about her collection of stories that includes some gay characters and/or cross-dressers.  Also, I’ve heard terrible things about cis author Kim Fu’s novel about a trans character in For Today I Am a Boy.  Frankly, I’m so fucking tired of cis writers publishing books about trans people with big houses while trans writers have such a hard time finding publishers.  But….. I am ridiculously excited about Shani Mootoo, Dionne Brand, Ann-Marie MacDonald, and Emma Donoghue, some of whom haven’t published a book in way too long.  And the descriptions for their books sound amazing!!

I’ve included the publisher’s blurbs underneath each book.  Which ones are you most excited about?  Which ones have you already read?

blaisNothing For You Here, Young Man by Marie-Claire Blais (translated from the French by Nigel Spencer)

In the latest installment in her award-winning series, Marie-Claire Blais reintroduces us to Petites Cendres, familiar from other books in the cycle, and lets us into the lives of two other unforgettable characters. She shows us, once again, how creativity and hope and suffering and exclusion intersect.  There is the writer who is stranded in an airport of the South Island, he is held captive because of a delayed flight. And a teenage musician, a former child prodigy living on the streets with his dog, wonders where he will get his next meal. Then there is Petites Cendres, who no longer dances or sings and refuses to get out of bed to attend the coronation of the new Queen of Night.  By superimposing these three worlds, Blais continues her ambitious, compelling exploration of life in contemporary North America

brandLove Enough by Dionne Brand 

In Love Enough, the sharp beauty of Brand’s writing draws us effortlessly into the intersecting stories of her characters caught in the middle of choices, apprehensions, fears. Each of the tales here–June’s, Bedri’s, Da’uud’s, Lia’s opens a different window on the city they all live in, mostly in parallel, but occasionally, delicately, touching and crossing one another. Each story radiates other stories. In these pages, the urban landscape cannot be untangled from the emotional one; they mingle, shift and cleave to one another.
The young man Bedri experiences the terrible isolation brought about by an act of violence, while his father, Da’uud, casualty of a geopolitical conflict, driving a taxi, is witness to curious gestures of love and anger; Lia faces the sometimes unbridgeable chasms of family; and fierce June, ambivalent and passionate with her string of lovers, now in middle age discovers: “There is nothing universal or timeless about this love business. It is hard if you really want to do it right.” Brand is our greatest observer–of actions, of emotions, of the little things that often go unnoticed but can mean the turn of a day. At once lucid and dream-like, Love Enough is a profoundly modern work that speaks to the most fundamental questions of how we live now.

frogFrog Music by Emma Donoghue

It is 1876, and San Francisco, the freewheeling “Paris of the West,” is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman called Jenny Bonnet is shot dead.  The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, Blanche will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice—if he doesn’t track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.  In thrilling, cinematic style, Frog Music digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue’s lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boom town like no other. Like much of Donoghue’s acclaimed fiction, this larger-than-life story is based on real people and documents. Her prodigious gift for lighting up forgotten corners of history is on full display once again in this unforgettable novel.

infidelityInfidelity by Stacey May Fowles

Ronnie, a hairdresser with a history of recklessness, feels stifled by the predictable, comfortable life laid out before her with her live-in boyfriend. Charlie is an anxiety-ridden award-winning writer, burdened by his literary success and familial responsibility, including a bread-winning wife and a child with autism. When the unlikely pair meets, a filmic affair begins on office desks and in Toronto hotel rooms, creating a false reality that offers solace in its secrets. Two very different people, trapped by everyday expectations, take pleasure in destroying those expectations together. Their relationship, with all its differences and failings, with all its pleasure and pain, calls into question our rigid and limiting definitions of right and wrong, and what it means to be a partner, parent, lover, and human being.

fuFor Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

At birth, Peter Huang is given the Chinese name juan chaun, meaning powerful king. He is the exalted only son in a family of daughters, the one who will finally fulfill his father’s dreams of Western masculinity. But Peter has different dreams: he knows that he is a girl.  Peter and his sisters—elegant Adele, shrewd Helen and Bonnie the bon vivant—grow up in a house of many secrets, then escape the confines of small-town Ontario and spread from Montreal to California to Berlin. Peter’s own journey is obstructed by playground bullies, masochistic lovers, Christian ex-gays and the ever-present shadow of his father.  Sensitive, witty and stunningly assured, Kim Fu’s debut novel is a coming-of-age tale like no other, one that lays bare the costs of forsaking one’s own path in deference to a road mapped out by others. Both lyrical and unflinching, For Today I Am a Boy shows us an unforgettable struggle: the story of a woman in the body of a Chinese-Canadian man— and marks the emergence of an astonishing new Canadian literary voice.

Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi (reviewed by me here)

In 1974 Bittercreek, Alberta, eight-year-old Egg Murakami lives a day-to-day existence on the family ostrich farm. Since her brother’s death, Egg’s mother has curled up inside a bottle and her father has exiled himself to the barn. Egg and big sister Kathy find solace in each other, Kathy reading books to Egg, reinventing them so that the stories end happily — and so that the world does not seem so awful. And Kathy, in love with her best friend, has her own problems.  The Murakami family is not happy. But in the hands of Tamai Kobayashi, Prairie Ostrich is a warm and compelling drama of rare insight and virtuoso verve. Kobayashi introduces a fresh perspective to Canadian literature, blending physical, cultural, ancestral, and sexual isolation into an account of one girl’s attempt to find her place against schoolyard battles and the mysteries of the adult world.  As Kathy’s last year in high school counts down to an unknown future, Egg sits a quiet witness against a vast prairie canvas. As she watches her family unravel, she slowly begins to realize that not every story can have a happy ending.

adultAdult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Mary Rose MacKinnon–nicknamed MR or “Mister”–is a successful YA author who has made enough from her writing to semi-retire in her early 40s. She lives in a comfortable Toronto neighbourhood with her partner, Hilary, a busy theatre director, and their 2 young children, Matthew and Maggie, trying valiantly and often hilariously to balance her creative pursuits with domestic demands, and the various challenges that (mostly) solo parenting presents. As a child, Mary Rose suffered from an illness, long since cured and “filed separately” in her mind. But as her frustrations mount, she experiences a flare-up of forgotten symptoms which compel her to rethink her memories of her own childhood and her relationship with her parents. With her world threatening to unravel, the spectre of domestic violence raises its head with dangerous implications for her life and that of her own children.

mootooMoving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo

From the author of Cereus Blooms at Night and Valmiki’s Daughter, both nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, comes a haunting and courageous new novel. Written in vibrant, supple prose that vividly conjures both the tropical landscape of Trinidad and the muted winter cityscape of Toronto, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is a passionate eulogy to a beloved parent, and a nuanced, moving tale about the struggle to embrace the complex realities of love and family ties.  Jonathan Lewis-Adey was nine when his parents, who were raising him in a tree-lined Toronto neighbourhood, separated and his mother, Sid, vanished from his life. It was not until he was a grown man, and a promising writer with two books to his name, that Jonathan finally reconnected with his beloved parent—only to find, to his shock and dismay, that the woman he’d known as “Sid” had morphed into an elegant, courtly man named Sydney. In the decade following this discovery, Jonathan made regular pilgrimages from Toronto to visit Sydney, who now lived quietly in a well-appointed retreat in his native Trinidad. And on each visit, Jonathan struggled to overcome his confusion and anger at the choices Sydney had made, trying with increasing desperation to rediscover the parent he’d once adored inside this familiar stranger.  As the novel opens, Jonathan has been summoned urgently to Trinidad where Sydney, now aged and dying, seems at last to offer him the gift he longs for: a winding story that moves forward sideways as it slowly peels away the layers of Sydney’s life. But soon it becomes clear that when and where the story will end is up to Jonathan, and it is he who must decide what to do with Sydney’s haunting legacy of love, loss, and acceptance.

winterThe Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter

Meet Xavier Boland, the untouchable cross-dresser, whose walk is loose and carefree as an old Broadway tune. Meet barmy Miss Penrice, clambering up a beechnut tree at the age of seventy-six. Meet a Zamboni mechanic turned funeral porteur, Madame Poirer’s lapdog (and its chastity belt), a congregation of hard-singing, sex-crazed Pentecostals, and more. With The Freedom in American Songs, Kathleen Winter brings her quirky sensuality, lyrically rendered settings, and off-key humor to bear on a new short story collection about modern loneliness, small-town gay teenagers, catastrophic love, gut-wrenching laughter in the absolute wrong places, and the holiness of ordinary life.

polyPolyamorous Love Song by Jacob Wren

From interdisciplinary writer and performer Jacob Wren comesPolyamorous Love Song, a novel of intertwined narratives concerning the relationship between artists and the world. Shot through with unexpected moments of sex and violence, readers will become acquainted with a world that is at once the same and opposite from the one in which they live. With a diverse palette of vivid characters – from people who wear furry mascot costumes at all times, to a group of ‘New Filmmakers’ that devises increasingly unexpected sexual scenarios with complete strangers, to a secret society that concocts a virus that only infects those on the political right – Wren’s avant-garde Polyamorous Love Song (finalist for the 2013 Fence Modern Prize in Prose) will appeal to readers with an interest in the visual arts, theatre, and performance of all types.

Posted in Asian, Bisexual, Canadian, Caribbean, Coming-of-age, Dionne Brand, Emma Donoghue, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Rural, Short Stories, South Asian, Toronto, Trans Feminine, Trans Masculine | Tagged , | 3 Comments

“That’s My Secret. Holding Still”: A Review of Zoe Whittall’s Novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible

holding stillReading Zoe Whittall’s Toronto-set novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible is kind of like reading a wittier, more exciting version of my urban early-to-mid-twenties queer life in the 2000s.  It was fun and nostalgic for me to jump back into this world, but it is uncanny to read a book featuring characters that are so much like you and the communities you’ve known.  I mean, in a good and a bad way: these are white, bike-riding, middle-class background, artsy, educated, FAAB queers. Unfortunately, both people of colour and trans women are pretty absent from the world of the book, although this is something that was mostly true in my experiences in similar communities in Halifax, Victoria, and London in that stage of my life.

What I’m saying is that what Whittall is doing in this book is limited, but she’s doing it really, really well.  Like, I can’t imagine anyone ever doing a better job.  I imagine for a lot of queer girls and trans guys of my generation (who fit the above description, obviously) this book may have been the first one they read where they really felt like it was (queer) literature about and for them, which is pretty fucking cool.  It’s also hilarious, in a dark, clever, sometimes cynical, real-life kind of way.

So yeah, this novel is about two cis queer women and a straight trans guy.  It’s a love triangle, or more precisely square.  The novel takes turns telling the story from each of their perspectives, and I know why Whittall chose to exclude one person’s perspective—plot twist reasons, although if you’re smarter than I am at figuring that stuff out, you’ll probably know what the twist is after not too long (I remained in the dark until pretty close to end but I’m notoriously terrible at that kind of thing).  But I do wish we could have heard a bit more from Maria, who is the recent ex of Billy (a nickname of Hilary).

Anyway, Billy is an ex-teen girl singer-songwriter who used to be famous in the hey-days of Lilith Fair—a has-been at the ripe old age of 25.  She doesn’t have a lot of life direction.  She’s a part-time university arts student, she’s got a café job she kind of sucks at, and she’s a hard drinking, cynical woman.  Her thoughts on gentrification, for example:

Me, well, I secretly hoped they really would build the rumoured Loblaws or Shoppers Drug Mart.  Then I wouldn’t have to stand between peed-pants guy and boob-touch guy at the 1-8 items aisle at Price Chopper.  I was thankful for the occasional latte, sick of the syrupy swill from the doughnut shop next to the train tracks.  I knew this made me a bad person, but whatever.  You pick your battles.

An answer to the question “What’s the good news?”:

‘I don’t feel like I’m being strangled today’ … in an uncharacteristic moment of complete honesty.

Billy’s also trying to deal with debilitating anxiety. One reason I put off reading Holding Still actually was that I was worried that the descriptions of anxiety—which I’d heard were really spot-on—would make my own anxiety worse.  They didn’t, gladly, but I was a bit perturbed by the abrupt end to Billy’s anxiety, which is totally unrealistic and not really how it works from mine and, uh, tons of other people’s experiences.  However, Whittall really does brilliantly and authentically depict what anxiety feels like.  For example:

During panic attacks, I searched out solidity in objects like support beams, sidewalk pavement, braced shelving units.  I held on, keeping fingers flat, in case they ran off like baby spiders in all directions.

Josh is the sweetest of the three characters, although he also has his flaws, obviously.  He’s the most grown-up.  He’s got a ‘real’ job as a paramedic and Whittall uses him to delve into the strange and (to me) terrifying world of ambulances and hospitals and medical emergencies.  And Whittall does a great job, really, as a cis writer portraying a trans character.  Being trans is there when it’s relevant and it’s not when it’s not.  I guess what feels weird about Josh is that he’s so normal and relatively stable and calm, which is so ground-breaking for a portrayal of a trans character but it also makes him not the most interesting fictional person.  Some tough family stuff from Josh’s past is really the only remarkable thing about him.

zoe_whittall_low-400x0

Zoe Whittall, via maisonneuve.org. Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri.

I liked Amy, Josh’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, least out of all the characters, especially at first, but I also found her the most amusing.  I don’t think I’d want to be her friend in real life, but I really did enjoy reading about her.  I have a feeling that if she were real I’d dislike her / be jealous of her because she’s one of those popular girls who crossed over to the indie/queer scene.  (And Whittall actually really cleverly investigates how Billy and Amy idolize each other and are jealous in that awful way girls learn to beat themselves up in).  What’s Amy like?  Amy’s self-righteous but hypocritical sometimes about stupid stuff like eating healthy, she’s not super aware of her own privileges (especially her upper-middle-class background), she’s a hipster who wants to look broke  and bohemian for lots of money, and she’s a filmmaker.  Also, she’s hilarious.  After a night of drinking:

This morning I woke up in a slug’s casing of my own regret

And after getting in contact with her ex-boyfriend after she and Josh break up:

I could feel Desperation’s presence in the room, hanging around me like a stifling, wet wool sweater.  I was not going to let that bitch get the better of me.

She does have some emotional depth, which you don’t see until quite late in the novel, which is maybe the way Whittall wanted it.  This is her wondering about Josh breaking up with her:

I’m not honest.  I have no depth of character.  I’m not brave enough to break myself down and ask important questions.  I’m just Amy, pretty Amy, with the easy life and lots of options.  Obviously I knew that Josh’s feelings for Billy had nothing to do with me.  But I couldn’t help turning everything inward. … I looked like a boy compared to her—no ass, string-bean arms.

Holding Still For As Long As Possible is a character driven novel, which is, duh, why I’ve spent so much time talking about the characters.  If you want to know more about them and what happens, which I hope you do, pick it up.  On top of everything else that’s awesome about this book, both Amy and Billy are bisexual and it was really gratifying for me to see non-monosexual women who were part of a queer scene and navigating it.  Billy thinking to herself “Quick, say something that indicates you also date boys,” after talking about her ex Maria to her current interest Josh, is exactly the kind of everyday being bi stuff that I don’t see enough of in queer fiction!

By the way, Whittall’s next novel titled The Best Kind of People is due out Spring 2016.  Not soon enough, in my opinion.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Fiction, Queer, Toronto, Trans, Trans Masculine, Zoe Whittall | 2 Comments

Wonder-full, Sexy, Smart, and Scary: A Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Short Story Collection Skin Folk

skin folkI’ve really been spoilt by fantastic short story collections this summer, and Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson is no exception.  When I say fantastic, I mean it in more than one sense: these stories are remarkable, especially wrapped as they are in Hopkinson’s slim but lively prose, but they’re also fantastical: some fairy tales, some fantasy, and some science fiction.  If you enjoy language that’s beautiful but gets to the point and surreal but sounds like real people (“crinkling her face like running a fork through molasses”)—you need to pick up Skin Folk.  In particular, this book’s diverse settings and characters allow Hopkinson to show off her remarkable command of different dialects.  Skin Folk is certainly one of the best collections of fantastic short fiction I’ve ever read, on par with Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories  (but happily, with more sex); in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best collections of short fiction period that I’ve ever read.

I think Hopkinson herself describes this collection best in the foreword to the first story:

Throughout the Caribbean, under different names, you’ll find stories about people who aren’t what they seem.  Skin gives these skin folk their human shape.  When the skin comes off, their true selves emerge.  They may be owls.  They may be vampiric balls of fire.  And always, whatever the burden their skins bear, once they remove them—once they get under their own skins—they can fly.  It seemed an apt metaphor to use for these stories collectively.

If this metaphor sounds creepy, yet enticing, then that’s exactly how you should feel.  Not all of these stories are creepy, but some of them certainly will scare the crap out of you.  All the more because of Hopkinson’s expert pacing and deceptively simple language.  In particular, “Snakes,” which is told from the point of a view of a pedophile with whom you identify for a period, not realizing what he is what he is, is absolutely terrifying.  It does, however, have quite a satisfying ending.  “The Glass Bottle Trick,” about a lighter skinned woman who has abandoned her studies to marry to a educated class-privileged man with “molasses-dark skin” is equally chilling, both literally and figuratively.  It’s a brilliant look at shadism and internalized racism.

“A Habit of Waste” begins like any other story about a Toronto commuter, except with a slight twist:

I was nodding off on the streetcar home from work when I saw the woman getting on.  She was wearing the body I used to have!  The shock woke me right up: it was my original, the body I had replaced two years before, same full, tarty-looking lips; same fat thighs, rubbing together with every step; same outsize ass; same narrow torso that seemed grafted onto a lower body a good three sizes bigger, as though God had glued left-over parts together.

Hopkinson uses this sci-fi setting to assess how women might hate their bodies—size and colour—but eventually accept them, in some futuristic way.

My favourite in the collection—aside from “Fisherman” which I’d already read and I’ll talk about in a minute—was “Ganger (Ball Lightning).”  It’s perhaps the craziest story of the bunch of them.  To describe this story makes it sounds quite ludicrous, but it’s actually sexy, funny, and heart-warming at the same time as it’s odd and, uh, horrifying.  Let me explain: at the beginning of the story Cleve and Issy have “been fucking in the Senstim Co-operation’s ‘wetsuits’ for about a week.”  These ‘wetsuits’ heighten your sensitivity to touch, but Issy compares them to

taking a shower with your clothes on.  The suits made you feel more, but it was a one-way sensation.  They dampened the sense of touch.  It was like being trapped inside your own skin, able to sense your response to stimuli but not to feel when you had connected with the outside world.

Issy has what she thinks it a brilliant idea—they should exchange their suits, which have molded to their bodies, so that they can feel what it’s like to have the other’s body.  This sex/gender switch makes the story take an interesting turn that feels quite queer, as in this sentence: “She swore she could feel Cleve’s tight hot cunt closing around her dick.”  All this is fascinating (and sexy) enough but I’ll leave you to read the story and find out what happens when Issy and Cleve don’t put the suits away properly and they decide they have a mind of their own.  What I really loved about this story is that although it’s focused on sexuality, it’s also a sensitive look at a long-term relationship.  You don’t read a lot of sexy stories about couples who have been together a long time.  And, it’s a cool and somewhat scary look at what kind of sex toys there might be in the future.

I’m going to plagiarize myself a bit here and reprint what I’ve already said about the erotic story “Fisherman,” which is included in With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn.  The story isn’t exactly the same in the Skin Folk version, which includes an epilogue to the sexy times where the fisherman K.C. has this brilliant realization: “is not only man have a right to fuck how he want.”  But in essence it’s the same.

nalo

Nalo Hopkinson via nalohopkinson.com

“Fisherman” opens with a reluctant, awkward customer sitting in the lobby of a whore house—the exact place isn’t clear, but it’s definitely somewhere in the Caribbean.  This adorable client, K.C., is especially nervous because they’re not a cis man and are only passing for a regular fisherman like the others in this town.  The sex worker Mary Anne, a smart and sexy woman, reassures the fisherman she would never turn away such an ideal customer and then casually asks “You ever fuck before?”  No, of course, is the fisherman’s answer.  Her response?  “Well doux-doux, is your lucky night tonight; you going to learn from the mistress of the house!”  This is first-time sex erotica really at its finest: it’s hot and really sexy but cute and a bit awkward at the same time.  I’ll just give you a taste of what the fisherman is in for:

She hips bucking like anything.  A strong woman this.  I had to brace myself, wrap one arm around she thigh and hold on tight.  So close in there, I close my hand up in a fist.  I pull back my hand partway, and push it in again.  Pull back, push in.  Pull back, push in.  She start to bawl ’bout don’t stop, fuck she, don’t stop.  I could do that.  I hold on to she bucking body and I fuck she.  Me, K.C.

Octavia Butler’s perhaps an obvious comparison that I’ve already mentioned, but both she and Nalo Hopkinson make me wonder how another human being’s imagination could possibly come up with such ideas.  If you like Butler’s work, you’ll love Hopkinson, guaranteed.  That wonder-full quality so exemplified in this collection of Hopkinson’s stories makes every single one of them fly just like the skin folk when they’ve revealed their true selves.

Posted in Bisexual, Black, Butch, Canadian, Caribbean, Erotica, Fantasy, Fiction, Lesbian, Nalo Hopkinson, Postcolonial, Science Fiction, Sex Work, Short Stories, Toronto | Tagged | 2 Comments

Not a Bad Apple in the Bunch: A Review of Casey Plett’s Short Story Collection A Safe Girl to Love

safe girl to loveAround this time last year, I read an amazing debut short story collection by Nancy Jo Cullen that I raved about, saying it was the best fiction I’d read all year.  There must be something in the air in late July, because I just read Winnipegger Casey Plett’s book A Safe Girl to Love—also a debut short story collection—and I just fucking loved it.  In fact, both books share a keen sense of place, an authentic, diverse human (and non-human) cast, and a liberal dose of fun, bitterness, heartbreak, sex, misery, and love.

Above all else what I feel like Plett really excels at in A Safe Girl to Love is that she really gets lots of different kinds of people. This felt like a book about people I know in the same way that Canary did.  There are the twenty-something urban queers, cis and trans women and men.  Plett does this just as well as Zoe Whittall in books like Holding Still For as Long as Possible, except her fiction includes a key omission: trans women.

Some of the queer characters include a cynical, funny trans woman who hates “dyke everything” and goes on a rant about her cis ex: “Oh my Gooooooood … transmisogyny! How can I be a chaser if I can’t read my fucking Post-it marked copy of Whipping Girl at the dance nights where all the trannies go?”  Her girlfriend is the kind of bad-ass who yells “FUCK YOU ASSHOLE DON’T TRY SHIT YOU FUCKING PIECE OF FUCK” to a transphobe on the street.  Another character is a deluded cis dyke who thinks equality is sameness and considers herself a “gigantically huge trans ally”–phrasing that speaks for itself.  Barf.  Other characters are a polyamourous guy-girl couple, both trans, who take in LGBTQ kids who don’t have anywhere else to go.

The thing is, Plett also gets folks like a 7o-year-old cis white Mennonite guy.  She channels the spirit of a middle-aged English dude in the form of a cat.  And a tough working-class dad defending his queer kid.  Like, pretty much all of the people I know—the good and the bad—are in this book!  Well, except for Gulf Islands hippies, who will probably be in Plett’s next book.

What lots of the stories in this book do that I’ve never seen before in fiction except in The Collection (reviewed here) is focus on relationships—romantic and otherwise—between trans women.  “Lizzy & Annie,” the story featuring the cynical funny dyke and her girlfriend I mentioned above, is so sweet and hot and sad.  I’m looking forward to reading lots more stories like it!  Two of my favourites,“Winning” and “Not Bleak,” focus on a friendship and a mother-daughter relationship.  “Not Bleak,” as Amber Dawn points out in her review of Plett’s book, is a traditional homecoming story, where the transformed urban dweller goes back to their rural hometown.  The perspective of two trans women, the one returning and the other accompanying her and pretending to be her girlfriend, make this familiar kind of story totally new and shiny.  The rise (and fall) of their friendship is as much a focus of the story as the homecoming.

Casey-Plett-Headshotx400

Casey Plett, via plenitudemagazine.ca

“Winning” at first spoke to me because of this gorgeous and knowing description of the Pacific Northwest: “It was mid-November when … the panorama of clouds stopped flirting with the sky and moved in and set parking brakes until May.  A soft mist-patter of rain was coming down…”  Like “Not Bleak,” “Winning” is also a home-coming story, but to a different kind of home: a small-town liberal Oregon that Zoe, the protagonist, nevertheless felt she had to leave to become the woman she is.  Her coming out as trans is a shock to her mom Sandy, but in a much different way than for most parents: Sandy is trans too. One fascinating thing that the story investigates is the generational differences between the ways that Sandy and Zoe see gender and being trans, like in this conversation:

Oh, well, I … Sandy muttered, oddly flustered all of a sudden.  You just tend to get more trouble in groups, that’s all.

What?

Don’t you know that?

Oh, said Zoe, well yeah I read that somewhere once but I didn’t really—

Dammit it’s true, Sandy said, suddenly aggravated.  And I’m glad we’re out doing stuff but Zoe, you can’t be so cavalier.  You can’t.

The sky was breaking outside and cylinders of sunlight were lighting up mist like specks of silver.   Sandy said, you can’t just sail through the world all charmed and oblivious anymore, all right?  It sounds depressing but it’s true, alright?

Mom I do okay, Zoe said, feeling tiny.

Sandy concentrated on traffic but she looked pissed.  Zoe stayed quiet.

Being pretty won’t always protect you, said Sandy.

Zoe looked out of the window.  Stop it, Mom.

I’m serious! said Sandy.  They’ll find out you used to be a man!

Mom! Zoe cried.  I don’t!  Want!  To have this conversation!  And I was never a fucking man, okay?

I’ve talked elsewhere about two of the other stories included in Plett’s book, “Other Women” and “How to Stay Friends”—where she brilliantly harnesses the power of the imperative tense throughout, instructing a  heart-breaking response of “‘You’re right.  It’s totally fine, thank you for telling me and being honest.’  Mean it a little, hate yourself a little, die a little.” This is to your ex’s telling you that your lipstick makes you look like a drag queen and that you look ridiculous.  Plett has such a gift for subtly but fiercefully depicting the shit trans women put up with when a transmisogynist world has taught them to have such low expectations.

I keep trying to pick a favourite in this collection but there really isn’t a bad apple in the bunch.   If you haven’t read Plett’s story from The Collection and Plenitude’s third issue, you can find them in A Safe Girl to Love (for more motivation, see my review of Plenitude here).  Every word of Plett’s writing is understated but packs a walloping, forceful impact, just when you’re not expecting it.  I think Plett has gone well beyond the call of The Collection editors to feature trans characters as agents of their own destiny–although she certainly has done that.  She has written trans women as complex, fascinating but regular human beings–in both the good and the bad ways–with humour, passion, and intelligence. That’s the kind of people I want to read about and the kind of author whose work I look forward to.

(Oh yeah, did I mention one story has a TALKING CAT in it?  Just in case you weren’t sold already.)

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Rural, Short Stories, Trans, Trans Feminine | Tagged | 2 Comments

Gender Landmines: Trans Masculinities, Femininities, and Binaries: A Review of Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon’s Gender Failure

9781551525372_GenderFailureI’ve been putting off writing a review of Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon’s collaborative book Gender Failure since I read an advanced reading copy back in March.  This is despite the fact that I had two type-written pages of notes that I’d made as I was reading the book.  The thing is, this book started off on the wrong foot with me, and I was never able to quite shake it.

Let’s go back a step: Gender Failure is an adaptation of Ivan and Rae’s extremely successful performance tour of the same name.  The book really carries over the multi-media aspect of the performance and is genre-bustingly awesome.  It’s interspersed with handwritten song lyrics, photographs, illustrations.  I especially love the dress-up cut-out doll of Ivan!  It’s no coincidence that gender and genre are only one letter off, and this book refuses to play by the rules of either.

Gender Failure is comprised of alternating essays/stories by Ivan and Rae, both of whom are talented writers, although I prefer Ivan’s more experienced and laid-back prose.  I did really enjoy the stories of Rae’s journeys through small-town Canada and unexpected kindness and prejudice, and new friends, and meeting a trans kid whose parents bring him to Rae’s show in Prince George.  Maybe it’s that Rae is better on the stage than in writing and Ivan is equally good in both mediums.   For example, this was one of my favourite lines by Ivan: “I had already spent years feeling like I was perched with one foot on a trans-shaped rowboat and the other foot resting on a butch dock, balancing myself and my language and words and work in the space between them.”

Some of this shit is hard to read about, like Ivan being harassed in the bathroom and people excusing it as ‘concern for women’s safety’ without any thought that Ivan also has the right to safely use a public washroom.  Both Rae and Ivan describe being intruded on and asked ridiculous invasive questions about their body and ‘the status’ of certain parts.  Some of this stuff is micro-aggressions and some of it is full-blown aggression.  Gender Failure is a passionate plea not for acceptance or tolerance, but for justice and respect.  Defending the right to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, Ivan writes “language changes and evolves to reflect the culture of those using it, and some people wish to be referred to by the pronoun they…  That is really all the reason needed.”

rae ivan

via lemonhound.com

This book is by no means a Trans 101, and is clearly written to speak to people like Ivan and Rae.  It’s not that I don’t think Gender Failure has a lot to teach straight and/or cis people, but it’s not written with them in mind, which is pretty wonderful.  This also means that the book doesn’t shy away from complexities and contradictions.  It addresses, for example, the ways in which transphobia affected Rae in a way it didn’t Ivan because Ivan continued to use female pronouns, which meant continuing acceptance in queer women’s communities, while Rae adopted ‘he.’  Rae also describes the lack of acceptance by trans guys who prioritized medically transitioning.  Erg, why can’t we all just support each other?  It was also fascinating to hear Rae talk about being confused and having an initially negative reaction to the pronoun ‘they,’ which is the pronoun they now use.  The idea of ‘earning pronouns,’ and having to convince people of your gender is something Ivan and Rae accuse both mainstream cis and trans discourses of sustaining.

Ivan also critiques the medicalized system of gender dysphoria while struggling to be ‘trans enough’ to be able to have their top surgery financially covered.  Ironically, Ivan had a terrible time finding a psychologist who could neutrally assess whether they were ‘trans enough’ to be funded, because most of them had read Ivan’s work as part of their training to be able to make such assessments about trans people.  Trans enough to teach people about trans issues but maybe not to get their surgery funded?   That is fucked up indeed.  I also loved one chapter by Ivan which was called “Do I Still Call Myself a Butch?” The answer, the shortest chapter in the book, is: “Yes.  Of course I still do.”

genderfailuredanger1

via genderfailures.wordpress.com

Notwithstanding everything I’ve just said, there was something that spoiled this book for me.  It was in the introduction, actually, and it really coloured the rest of my reading, despite how much I tried to leave it behind.  I want to make it clear that I’m making these criticisms with a lot of respect for both these artists.  In fact, I wouldn’t take the time to write this if I didn’t.

In Rae Spoon’s intro, they describe themselves as a “gender-neutral (formerly trans masculine) person.”  This immediately rubbed me the wrong way and I had to sit and think about why for a long time.  Obviously, Spoon has full rights to identify their gender however they want and to use the pronoun they, that goes without saying.  I mean, I hate that I even have to write that, because it sounds patronizing.  But to refuse to admit they fall onto the trans masculine scale—as someone who identifies as trans, was female assigned at birth (FAAB), and has a relatively masculine gender presentation—just doesn’t feel right to me.

In particular, this disavowal of the trans masculine fails to acknowledge the privilege trans masculine folks have in contrast to trans feminine folks.  This is something I’ve learnt from reading trans women writers, and it’s something that runs rampant in lesbian/queer women’s communities in particular.  It’s not within someone’s right to self-identify to deny gender-based privilege where it exists, particularly in queer men’s and women’s communities where the privilege of masculinity—even of the trans variety—often goes unchecked.  Rae does specify that they benefit from privilege “especially in queer communities,” which I appreciate.  But they don’t address the fact that their very terms of identification—“gender-neutral (formerly trans masculine)”—erase and conflate the very real power imbalance between trans male/masculine and trans female/feminine people.

Rae later addresses the point of gender-neutrality again when discussing fashion.  I’m pretty skeptical of the idea that anything, let alone fashion, can ever really be gender-neutral or androgynous, to be honest.  The concept of androgyny has historically and repeatedly been masculine despite claims of gender balance—I’ve done a lot of research on it, as it’s something I wrote my Master’s thesis on.  And frankly, Rae’s gender presentation still reads as masculine to me and so falls right into this pattern of masculinity disguised as androgyny.  In the same way that ‘he’ was and still is used as a universal pronoun that supposedly encompasses both he and she, the concept of androgyny has been used to present the illusion of gender-neutrality while it continues to privilege masculinity and maleness.

via straight.com

via straight.com

I want to respect that Rae doesn’t identify as masculine but what else are you supposed to call the outfits of pants, dress shirts, ties, and jackets that Rae is wearing in the (beautiful) illustration on the cover and elsewhere in the book?  I’m wary of any effort to claim that you fall nowhere on the gender spectrum, which Rae does in declaring their “retirement from gender”—the thing is, everyone falls somewhere in comparison to other people and to ignore that fact is suspicious.  I’m having a really hard time reconciling wanting to respect Rae and feeling like they are avoiding admitting their privilege.  The fact is, genderqueer and gender-neutral are often shorthand for FAAB and masculine gender presentation, and it’s unfair of Rae not to acknowledge that.  The frequently seen term “women and trans” does the same thing, assuming that someone can’t be both trans and a woman, effectively making this statement mean “FAAB.”

In contrast to Rae, Ivan explicitly and repeatedly includes material about trans women and I appreciate how that helps counteract the dominance of trans masculinities.  Actually, twice early on in the book Ivan addresses transmisogyny and the privilege of people on the trans masculine spectrum.  The chapter about trans remembrance day and Ivan’s efforts to celebrate and not only mourn trans women’s lives is especially moving.  Ivan writes: “I will work to never forget my living trans sisters.  I will speak their names aloud , too, and then get to work.  Work to earn the word ‘brother.’”  Ivan thus acknowledges that the work of undoing and unlearning trans masculine privilege is a work in process.   This chapter may or may not have made me cry while I was reading this book on the bus.  You have to ask this question though: why aren’t more trans women like Ivan’s friend Rosie, who is lovingly described in an essay dedicated to her, telling their own stories? 

Rae’s interrogations of gender binaries similarly irked me.  They focus a lot on “rejecting the sexist requirements of the gender binary.”  This just sounds so holier than thou and naïve.  Just because you fit into the gender binary doesn’t mean your gender is sexist; it sounds a bit like someone’s just read a bunch of gender theory.  It also sounds dismissive of femininity.  I understand that Rae is coming from a place of being really hurt and let down and delegitimized by the gender binary, because they don’t identify in it, and have had troubles fitting into both the female box they were assigned in and the trans male one they chose to identify with for a while.  But just because Rae has been forced by heteronormative and mainstream trans narratives to identify within the gender binary doesn’t mean there is something inherently wrong with identifying in it and that trans and cis feminine women’s identities are inherently sexist.  That’s unfair and, frankly, unfeminist.  It also rankles me because it’s almost always masculine folks who are celebrating the demise of the binary and accusing feminine people—especially trans women—of enforcing it.  Bisexuals get this all the time too, as if the terms gay and lesbian don’t also reference firm ideas of man and woman.  These accusations against trans women, femininity, and non-monosexuals are not coincidences in a transmisogynist, sexist, biphobic world!  (For more on this, I suggest Julia Serano’s Excluded). 

Was anyone else bothered by the way that Rae’s writing interacts with the concepts of gender binarism and trans femininity and masculinity?

I’m at a loss: in some ways I really loved this book and in some ways it made me angry.

Posted in Alberta, Butch, Canadian, Graphic, Ivan E. Coyote, Montreal, Queer, Rural, Short Stories, Trans, Trans Masculine, Vancouver | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Now in Gorgeous Print Version!: A Review of Plenitude’s Fourth Issue

Plenitude-Issue-4-cover-for-webThe fourth issue of Plenitude is both a little new and what I’ve come to expect from this high-quality, diverse collection of writing by queer people.  What’s new, you ask?  Plenitude now comes in a print version!  I was so excited to get mine in the mail, and then get to parade it around on BC ferries while I was reading it.  Look everyone, at this awesome queer literary magazine!  Did you know it’s your queer literary magazine?  There’s just something about having a text in tangible, print form that just doesn’t compare to electronic versions.  Fine, call me a luddite if you want to.

So, what about that what-I’ve-come-to-expect part?  Let’s have a look!

Caitlin Crawshaw, via lifesalberta.com

Caitlin Crawshaw, via lifesalberta.com

The first story that really caught my attention was a cute bisexual first kiss story by Edmonton-based Caitlin Crawshaw.  There were a few phrases that really captured the difficulty of not fitting into the homonormative narrative of identity, like “I am trapped in that awkward space between the breeders and the queers.”  Having just finished Shiri Eisner’s book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, this first made me think: embrace the contradictory, radical in-betweenness that is being bi!  Then I remembered that being in that position can be isolating, scary, and just plain shitty.  Anyway, more on those bi topics some other time.

Crawshaw’s character trying to look back and locate that so-called authentic queerness really resonated for me too:

People often look to childhood for an explanation.  But in mine, I see none.  Pink was my favourite colour; lacy little-girl dresses with ribbon and flowers made my little-girl knees weak.  I was a stereotype of a middle-class, blond-haired girl.  I was a talking doll.  For the record, I hated sports.  … At five, the rules were lost to me.  At twenty-three, I’m still unsure what team I’m playing for.

Vancouver-based poet Rachel Rose’s poem “Flood” was a pleasure to read, especially these gorgeous, sexy (also bisexual!) Sappho-inspired last lines:

Why let husbands come between us

when your hair, bright as saffron, fills my hands?

You were so stone

I flooded

Faye Guenther, via twitter.com

Faye Guenther, via twitter.com

An important, really well-written story that was hard to read at times was Faye Guenther’s “Opened Fire,” about a woman who served with the Canadian army in Afghanistan and has come back with PTSD.  Carmen’s current life, having returned to small-town Ontario with not much to do to keep herself busy, is interspersed with flashbacks to some really awful shit in Afghanistan.  There’s a romance in this story too, although it’s dwarfed by the other issues in the story.  Also, the woman Carmen meets has some of her own stuff to deal with:

Aurora had noticed Carmen earlier, the slight hunch of her shoulders and her upper body boxed tightly like a wound-up spring as if she were getting ready to throw a punch.  Lately, the days had been sliding by for Aurora, long but hardly memorable.  She felt like she’d fallen into their flat rhythm, losing track of herself along the way.  Suddenly here was this woman whose wary presence threw everything back into relief.  There was something dishevelled, too, in this stranger, something submerged.

Nat Marshik’s “First Poem for my Mother” is a really beautiful tribute that appealed to my nerdy interest in linguistics and language:

My mother’s world crackles with facts.

The smallest things salt themselves into words that twist

On the tongue, words that walk

On the legs of dead languages.  She revels

In the shape of a sound and its memories

Of ancient mouths, how history is woven

Through prefixes or pulled through

The narrow opening of a vowel.  She knows life

Can dance all winter inside a crocus bulb.

She keeps a dictionary by her elbow at dinner.

Amal Rana’s “Insisting on Socks” (okay too bad about the title) was otherwise a moving poem investigating racism in the immigration system:

knowing you might be deported

knowing we might never again

fight over fried chicken, the last aloo paratha

knowing you were about to leave my arms

perhaps for the last time

you suddenly mentioned you forgot to wear socks

and remembered that in prison floors are always cold

I offered you mine but didn’t insist

I didn’t insist

I should have insisted

Amal Rana, via loveinshallah.com

Amal Rana, via loveinshallah.com

I often find it difficult to talk about why I enjoy certain poems and not others, and these two were no exception, but there you go.  I liked them.  Check them out.

Oh yeah, and a shout-out to Shawn Syms’s story, which contains this awesome sentence about a gay guy in the 90s thinking about a butch lesbian: “Erik was actually a bit aroused by her macho looks, but wasn’t sure if it was politically correct to admit this.”  This made me laugh out loud!  I also appreciated how this story tackled biphobia by describing a lesbian organization that would rather hire a gay guy to do media coverage for them than a woman who “was booted out once it became known she also slept with men.”

These are just some snippets from the latest Plenitude issue.  You can get your copy (print and digital!) here.

Posted in Andrea Routley, Anthology, Asian, Bisexual, Canadian, Fiction, Gay, Lesbian, Non-Canadian, Poetry, Postcolonial, Queer, Short Stories, Victoria | 3 Comments