A Magical, Tantalizing Recreation of Historical Space for Queer Black Women: A Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads

the salt roadsMy first thought after beginning to read The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson was “Why did it take me so long to read this book?  It’s SO AWESOME.”

My second thought: “Holy crap, there’s lesbian sex twice in the first fifteen pages—why doesn’t the blurb for this book make it clear that’s it’s queer?”

Uh, let’s back track a little.  I’ve read Caribbean-born and raised, current Torontonian Hopkinson’s first and most recent books and enjoyed both, but I really loved The Salt Roads.  It’s an ambitious, wide-reaching novel that is at once historical, spiritual, magical, and fantastical.  I love the kind of historical fiction that reimagines and brings women from the past alive and into the spotlight, and Hopkinson does this so well, but she also 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.   It’s a tantalizing, fabulous mix and a moving recreation and celebration of black women’s voices and spaces, with a lot of attention to shadism throughout.

Another thing I loved about The Salt Roads was that it follows three very different women, in different times and places.  The first woman we meet is Mer, who is a loving but hard woman and a doctor, midwife, and plantation slave in (probably?) mid 18th century Saint Domingue (Haiti).  (The novel never tells us exactly when, but an historical figure, a rebellious one-armed man who escaped his plantation in 1751 is one of the slaves who lives on the same farm as Mer).  Mer’s snarky voice is the first thing you see when you open the book.  She’s examining a pregnant woman and she mutters “It went in white, but it will come out mulatto in a few months’ time, yes?”

Mer is one of the oldest slaves on the plantation, having been there twelve years, and serves as a kind of mother figure and spiritual leader.  At one point she thinks: “So hard to be the one asking for aid instead of giving it.”  This pretty much epitomizes this calloused, strong woman who is both terrified of and intrigued by the plots of rebellion and the possibility of living outside the system of slavery.  Her closest support is another woman, Tipingee, with whom she was “sisters before Tipingee’s blood came; wives to each other after, even when they had had husbands.”  There are atrocities in Mer’s world, of course; but Hopkinson focuses on the community and individual loves and desires, creating a queer, black, feminist revisioning of the narrative of slavery in the Caribbean.

nalo hopkinson 2Mer’s is the most explicit struggle for freedom, but both of the other main characters are searching for this as well.  The second character Hopkinson introduces us to is Jeanne Duval, a biracial woman originally from Haiti who is living in Paris.  I was thrilled to find out that Jeanne is a real historical person!  She was actually a long-term lover and muse of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire.  I love this kind of historical writing, giving voices to women who have been overshadowed by the famous men that they were connected with. Oh yeah, and she’s also queer, and the first scene we meet her in has her in bed with another dancer/entertainer, Lisette.

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.’

Just so you know, it gets more explicit after that, but you’ll have to pick the book up to find out how exactly.  Jeanne is also looking for freedom: economic, sexual, and artistic. Her opportunities as a black woman in 1840s Paris are severely limited, and although her real love is Lisette, it’s not really practically viable for them to be together.  She turns to Baudelaire, with whom she has, to put it mildly, a very interesting relationship.  There’s all sorts of class and racial issues going on with them, and Baudelaire is kind of a typical self-involved poet jack-ass, although he does love Jeanne in his own way.  It’s fascinating to watch Jeanne navigate the intricacies of her emotional, sexual, and financial relationship with him and to pursue her own desires and dignities while working with her narrow options.

The third woman, who isn’t introduced until much later in the novel, is also an historical figure: Saint Mary of Egypt.  She goes by Thais in the novel, and is a sex worker like in Christian accounts of her, although not in the derogatory, oh it’s so terrible how she enjoys sex way that those writings frame her life.  In fact, in Hopkinson’s re-telling she was sold into prostitution and slavery as a girl, and is working towards her freedom when she decides to take a trip to Jerusalem on a whim with her gay fellow prostitute Judah.  The man (who later is also deemed a saint) who discovers her and declares her to be holy is portrayed as a crackpot who sees something in her that is not there, and Thais and Judah leave him unceremoniously in the desert, going in search of food (even though she’s supposedly fasting).

Connecting these women and others, is Elizi, a spirit who flows free sometimes and possesses human bodies at others.  When the bold type appears in the novel, you know you’ve encountered her (and perhaps other goddesses).  These parts of the book are surreal, brief interposes between the more straightforward narratives of the three women.

I feel like I’m failing to adequately describe this encompassing, rich, beautiful novel.  Just go read it, people.

Posted in Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, Nalo Hopkinson, Postcolonial, Queer, Sex Work, Toronto | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Reclaiming Bodies, Writing The Self: A Review of Portable Homes, Collected by Lexie Bean

Cover artwork by Shelby Ziesing, Tails Williams, Thomas Anyel Irving, and Steven James Ploe (via autostraddle.com)

Cover artwork by Shelby Ziesing, (via autostraddle.com)

Portable Homes, collected by Lexie Bean, is quite unlike any other book I’ve read.  Like a lot of other collections showcasing the work of different writers, there were some whose writing I liked a lot, and others that didn’t really do much for me.  That’s kind of standard for anthologies; the thing is, what’s really interesting is that I’m not sure it’s really the point that some of these pieces didn’t do anything for me; the letters in this book are the kind of writing that is less for readers than it is for the writers themselves.

That’s because Portable Homes is a collection of letters by survivors of domestic abuse to different parts of their bodies.  It’s a powerful way for these people to reclaim their bodies.  You can check out this great interview on Autostraddle with editor Lexie Bean and her co-organizers Lisa Neumann and Caroline Mills, where they talk about the history of the “Attention: People With Body Parts” multi-media project. In that interview, Bean specifies that their definition of domestic violence is this: “domestic violence is violence within a place that should feel close and safe.”  She also specifies that

Within Portable Homes there were a lot of queer people, which is great. It was mostly people who identify as women, but not fully, which is really important to make space for both male and trans communities who have experienced violence, because it goes in all directions.

Another big community that’s represented in the book is low-income communities, which is people who have limited access to resources that are tangible and physical, which really makes this project feel resonant within places where that’s a big issue of accessibility because the goal is finding a safe space within our bodies and other people, and within spaces where you can’t go to a transition home.

I noticed both of these things when I was reading this book, and it was something I really appreciated.  Not only are queer women included, Portable Homes also addresses queer women as the perpetrators of violence, which is an important topic that’s not much talked about.  If you’d like to read more about this, I highly recommend Leah Horlick’s article on Autostraddle: “This Happens: Sexual Assault Between Queer Women.”  Queer men survivors are included in Portable Homes as well.

Lexie Bean

Lexie Bean (via thefeministwire.com)

God, some of these letters are heartbreaking to read.  Some are full of self-love, but others are ambivalent about the body parts they write to.  For example, one woman wishes for bigger breasts, so she can feel more like an adult, distanced from the body she remembers that was abused.  Another woman comes up with a powerful, strange image, and says she was convinced that her belly button was a breathing hole for a future baby.  Hers was one of my favourite letters.  Here it is in full:

Dear Belly Button,

At seven years old, I was convinced that you were the breathing hole for my future baby. I was too afraid to cover you, afraid to hide my future baby’s mouth—afraid that she would feel stuck like my wrists under the blue sheets on that night our stepfather uncovered you.

I wanted you to be able to breathe, to spit out the words that his wet tongue whispered into you like a wishing well. To spit out the bones, the tongue, the cheek; your story is anything but tongue and cheek. You are real; you tether me to four generations of women whose wishes echoed into someone else’s mouth. You remind me of my future baby: the one that knows that his words, his hurt, are not a secret.

Breathe slowly; I will never cover your mouth. My lifelines and un-brushed hair, my beautiful wrists and crisscrossed toes have all heard the news through your wavering breath.

But you survived.

Breathe slowly,

Stay with me

With love,

I imagine that writing these letters were cathartic and healing to the writers, but I would caution readers that a lot of the material in Portable Homes could be triggering, especially as many of the pieces are quite explicit; that said, I’ve never experienced sexual assault so I imagine folks who have might experience this collection quite differently than I did. Above all, keep this sage advice from the introduction in mind:

Do not be afraid to put this book down. Do not be afraid to pick this book up.

This book is not heavy, but a release for those who have survived.

The project is ongoing, and you can check it out and submit your own letter here: http://attnpeoplewithbodyparts.org/   You can also check out their facebook page for up-to-date info on workshops, tours (including in Canada), and past and future projects.

Posted in Anthology, Graphic, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Queer | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Canadian Women in the 26th Lammy Finalists: Some Enthusiastic Rants, and Some Just Plain Enthusiasm

It’s that time of year again: lammy nominations!  Oh, how I love and hate them.  At best, I have complicated feelings about the Lambda Literary Awards.  As Autostraddle writer Carolyn reported last year, in 2004 (!!!) a transphobic book made it onto the trans lit shortlist; it was only removed after protests.  Last year when The Collection: Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, a short story anthology edited by Tom Léger and Riley MacLeod, won in the trans fiction category, it was the first time a trans author had actually won in that category.  Trans and bisexual categories haven’t been around that long, and at times the categories haven’t accurately reflected books that were nominated or even won in them.

six metres of pavementFor example, Toronto writer Farzana Doctor’s lovely novel Six Metres of Pavement won in the lesbian fiction category a few years ago.  I was really excited to see a Canadian writer of colour win this award.  The thing is, the novel is mainly about a romance between two straight, cis people and the protagonist is a man.  There is a secondary queer character, but she is not a lesbian and explicitly rejects the bisexual label (although she dates people of different genders) and prefers the term queer. Is it just me, or should we take it seriously when someone identifies as queer and not lesbian?  Unfortunately, the Lambdas don’t actually even have a category that would reflect the character in Six Metres of Pavement.  The worst thing about this whole fiasco is that it really fucked with my expectations when I picked up this book, and made me enjoy it a lot less than I would have if I had just read it knowing the author was a lesbian.  When it’s called lesbian fiction, I expect there to be lesbians.  That’s not weird, is it?

Them ruining my enjoyment of Six Metres of Pavement and quashing the distinctions between lesbian, bisexual and queer is probably on par with straight author Thrity Umrigar winning the lesbian fiction category last year for The World We Found. The whole debate on whether authors have to self-identify as LGBT or not has been going on for a while; the Lambda foundation have changed their minds about this a few times.  Currently, books have to have ‘significant’ LGBT content to qualify, but authors do not have to identify as LGBT.  As a lesbian, I’m all for people who aren’t lesbians writing about lesbians, as long as they do their research and seriously consider the responsibilities of writing about a minority group you don’t belong to.  However, it pisses me off when there are fantastic books written by queer women in the lesbian fiction category and a book by a straight woman, with one out of four main characters queer-identified, wins instead.  I just think the award should go to a queer author.  Again, that’s not weird, is it?

There’s another nomination this year that I am pretty pissed off about: cis straight author Ian Hamilton’s The Wild Beasts of Wuhan is up for the lesbian mystery award.  As I said in detail in my review of this book, I think it’s sexist, transphobic (both towards trans masculine and feminine folks), and classist.  It brushes aside sexual assault like it’s not a big deal, praises the lesbian protagonist’s normative gender, contains gross, annoying product placement, includes a transmisogynist metaphor, and fails to address racism, sexism, or homophobia while the Chinese-Canadian lesbian detective is travelling the world.  It’s terrible and offensive and just WHY??

canaryOn the negative train still for a second before I switch gears, I am SUPER disappointed Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen didn’t make the shortlist for LGBT debut fiction.  It’s such a fucking awesome collection of short stories, and one of the best queer books I’ve ever read.  I really don’t understand why it didn’t make the cut because it really stole my heart and is so well-written and funny and authentic and weird and smart.  Cullen really nails working class and rural dialogue and does a fantastic job of creating and depicting ordinary people in all their eccentric glory.  People, there’s a gut-busting story about a middle-aged lesbian going for a bikini wax for the first time after her long-term relationship ends and it doesn’t go exactly as she plans and the story is called “Bush.”  Read more of my thoughts here and go get the book!

wanting in arabicAnyway, like I said, complicated at best.  That said, I am really excited about some of the Canadians who are on the shortlists this year.  In particular, the second edition of Winnipeg writer, poet, and academic Trish Salah’s poetry collection Wanting in Arabic is up for a trans fiction award (uh, despite the fact that it’s poetry, not fiction, but let’s put that aside for now).  Wanting in Arabic was originally published in 2002, and it’s been on my reading list for quite some time.  It would actually fit just as well in a lesbian/queer section, yet another issue with the categories.  To be fair, though, books are submitted by authors and/or publishers into specific categories.   I just got a copy out of the library, so expect a review of it soon!  In the meantime, Globe and Mail writer Margaret Christakos had this to say about the book:

Wanting in Arabic is a self-impelled keening for identification with a lost tongue, both that of her father’s Lebanese roots and her own metamorphosis…This indeterminate and determined voice chronicles the trans-self’s journey as a tour et retour de force…. With ethical toughness and carnal ecstasy, Salah’s writing bosoms up every damn dam in the literary waterway.

Trish Salah (photo by Ralph Kolewe, via uwinnipeg.ca)

Trish Salah (photo by Ralph Kolewe, via uwinnipeg.ca)

Doesn’t that sound AWESOME?  Salah is also one of the poets included in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, edited by T.C. Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, which is up for LGBT anthology.  I’ve heard very, very good things about this collection; in particular, one writer friend told me it would “further complicate and torture my definition odyssey.”  Haha.  The unique thing about this anthology is that it includes detailed poetic statements from all of the poets in addition to their poetry, where they address the relationships between language, identification, embodiment, and activism and give a context for their work.  Salah is the only Canadian that I know of so far in this book, but there are probably (hopefully?) some more that I haven’t heard of in here as well.

how poetry saved my lifeTwo west coast authors, Amber Dawn and Andrea Routley, have also been nominated in the lesbian memoir/biography and LGBT debut fiction categories respectively.  Personally, I think How Poetry Saved My Life is a shoo-in.  It’s such an amazing, unique book, that goes from personal essay to stories to erotica to poetry and back and from funny to heart-breaking and everywhere in between.  I love this book so much every time I write about it, I end up using clichés like “everywhere in between” and “I laughed and I cried.”  Plenitude Magazine editor and founder Routley’s Jane and the Whales is uneven like many debuts, and I don’t think Routley and I share a sense of humour, but it is a powerful collection of short stories by a writer with a serious gift for depicting a particular brand of west coast characters in a darkly comic way.

To see a complete list of the Canadians nominated (including men and Canadian women Mel Bossa’s bi men’s romance and Tracey Richardson’s lesbian romance), check out this Quill & Quire list.

Posted in Amber Dawn, Andrea Routley, Anthology, Asian, Canadian, Farzana Doctor, Fiction, Lesbian, News, Poetry, Queer, Rural, Sex Work, Short Stories, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Casey reviews Excluded by Julia Serano

caseythecanadianlesbrarian:

This is me! On the lesbrary! I’m re-blogging it here for three reasons: 1) I’m proud of this ridiculously long review; 2) it’s hard to find Canadian trans women writers so I thought who cares if Serano is American; 3) despite the fact that I’m pretty critical of this book, Julia Serano is kinda one of my heros.

Originally posted on The Lesbrary:

excluded

I was pretty eager when I picked up writer, performer, and activist Julia Serano’s latest book, Excluded: Making Queer and Feminist Movements More Inclusive. I had read her first book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity back when it came out, and thought it was totally mind-blowing and so overdue and just plain old awesome in every way.  It taught me a lot about femininity, gender, sexuality, feminism, and transmisogyny (actually, I’m pretty sure it taught me the term transmisogyny).  Whipping Girl is one of the best feminist books I’ve ever read, and I really think that it should be read by, like, everybody.  If you haven’t read it yet, go do that right now!

So, given my high expectations, it kind of makes sense that I could only be disappointed by Excluded.  Whereas in Whipping Girl Serano is tackling queer and…

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Posted in Bisexual, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Quiet, Subtle Power on the Prairies: A Review of Tamai Kobayashi’s Novel Prairie Ostrich

Isn't this cover just beautiful?

Isn’t this cover just beautiful? (via gooselane.com)

Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi is not a bold book.  It is not a quick read.  It is not an action-packed book.  It is not explicit.  For these reasons, and more, this first-time novel is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read.

Kobayashi, who was born in Japan and raised in Canada, has crafted one hell of a mesmerizing novel.  It’s the kind of fascinating that you might miss, though, if you try to read it too fast; it would be too easy to miss the subtle, quiet power of this novel.  So take your time!  For one thing, it takes a while to sink into the setting of Prairie Ostrich, which is an historical novel set in rural Alberta in the 70s.  Your angle on this small town called (significantly) Bittercreek is not what you might expect: eight-year-old “Egg” Murakami is the limited perspective you get.  Egg is having a rough time.  Her teenage brother Albert died last summer, and her family are all grieving in their own way.  Her dad has secluded himself away in the barn with the ostriches he raises.  Her mother drinks whiskey at all hours of the day.  Her older sister Kathy—in grade twelve—is trying to hold the family together, and is the only one really present for Egg, who is not only trying to make sense of her brother’s death but deal with the bullies at her school.

This novel is narrated in the present tense, a strategy that is always a bit off-putting for me.  It reminded me of another amazing queer book, Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley, which also deals with grief and tough subjects and uses the present tense.  We’re so used to stories being narrated in the past.  Why do so few writers use the present tense?  I found Kobayashi’s use of it in Prairie Ostrich so interesting, because what it made so clear was that she was not offering the illusion of a safe present from which the story in the past in narrated.  You actually don’t know that the characters even survive to tell the tale.

That’s a scary thought, but this novel is concerned with death and survival throughout, and Egg’s brother’s accident is, to use an old cliché, just the tip of the iceberg.  The Second World War, both the Holocaust in Europe and the internment /work camps and forced relocation and deportation of Japanese-Canadians, haunts much of Prairie Ostrich.  Egg and her family are only living in the prairies because of the government-led ‘relocations’ of Japanese-Canadians, and her parents met while her mother was in Japan, presumably as a result of forced deportation.  The racism that fuelled these government programs is alive and well in Bittercreek, and Egg is bearing the brunt of it at school.

It’s the awful stuff of the world—racism, death, homophobia, hate, heartbreak—that Kathy wishes to shield her sister from.  The saddest part of this novel is that Kathy alters the endings of the books she reads to Egg so that everything doesn’t seem so terrible.  Egg believes that Anne Frank survived the Holocaust and is living in New York as an actress.  She believes Charlotte and Wilbur lived happily ever after.  As you can probably imagine, these are not illusions that manage to stay unbroken by the end of the novel.

Tamai Kobayashi

Tamai Kobayashi (via gooselane.com)

It’s not that Kathy is duping her sister, who is in fact a really bright kid, although she is kind of awkward like the ostriches that live on her family’s farm.  But she’s a lovable, nerdy kind of awkward, the kind of kid who would be different than most of the other kids even if she weren’t the only Japanese girl in her class.  It’s very interesting to witness the teenage lesbian romance through the eyes of an eight-year-old who doesn’t really get it, but at the same time intuitively kind of does.  Egg thinks her sister Kathy and Stacey are ‘best friends,’ wonders why her sister acts like a ‘gentleman’ around her friend, and can sense when things aren’t going well.  Egg’s viewpoint gives all the scary, sad stuff happening around her this hazy glow; it makes everything seem all the more awful, because from her innocent, inquisitive perspective hate and prejudice just don’t make any sense.

I highly recommend this beautiful novel!  It was just released today!  Check out Danika’s review over at the Lesbrary for more incentive.

The book launch, if you’re in the Toronto area, is March 27th at 7pm at Another Story Bookshop.

(Note: Do not read the description of Prairie Ostrich on Goodreads: it basically tells you the entire plot in a much less interesting way than the actual novel does.)

Posted in Alberta, Asian, Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Rural, Young Adult | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

What Is This Blog All About Anyways?: Or, Women, and Other Complicated Words

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about what the parameters of my website were going to be before I set it up, although I admittedly probably didn’t think the cheesy name Canadian lesbrarian through well enough.  Oh well, I’m stuck with it now!  Anyway, I knew right away that I wanted to limit the site to Canadian authors and/or content, because there were already high quality more general lesbian book blogs out there—I’m looking at you, the lovely Lesbrary!  Actually, I couldn’t believe that nobody else had started a Canadian lesbian book blog before I got around to it.

Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian is actually an adapted and extended version of the PhD thesis I was planning before I hightailed it out of grad school—no offense to those of you still trucking away at the academic grind.  Best of luck, suckers!  No really, good luck.  Seriously.  Anyway, I had planned on focusing on Canadian and women’s literature, because I wanted to write about queer Canadian women’s writing.  Easy peasy, right?  I thought so.

Shani Mootoo, when is your next book coming out?  I've been patiently waiting for so long.

Shani Mootoo, when is your next book coming out? I’ve been patiently waiting for so long. (via http://www.penguinbooksindia.com)

When I was setting up the blog, I was also pissed off that in general things known as LGBTQ tend to actually be mostly G, with a side of L and little-to-no BTQ, so I wanted to make a concerted effort to, uh, not write about cis gay men (as much as I love you, my queer brothers).  I was also concerned about the lack of attention that queer authors and characters of colour had gotten, and wanted to highlight writers I loved, such as Shani Mootoo, who I thought weren’t as widely read as they should have been.  In addition, I wanted to read and discover new queer Canadian writers of colour. 

At first, the lines I drew were pretty clear and straightforward:  authors and/or characters had to identify as trans or cis women, had to fall somewhere on the LBTQ spectrum, and they had to have some connection to Canada, whether it was the author’s nationality/place of birth or residency/etc., or the setting of the book.  I was very specific that the website was not just for lesbians and bi women.  I really wanted (and want) to read any and everything that was by Canadian trans women, and I could care less whether they identify as straight or LBQ.  There is so little published fiction by trans women at all that I have even reviewed The Collection, an anthology of trans fiction writers who are almost all American, besides the very exciting up-and-coming writer Casey Plett, from Winnipeg (check out my review of her other story that was published in Plenitude magazine here).

This is Casey Plett (via http://theheroines.blogspot.ca/). You should read her stuff (in The Collection and Plenitude).

Hi, Casey Plett   You should read her stuff (in The Collection and Plenitude). (via http://theheroines.blogspot.ca/)

This all got a bit complicated, however, when I realized I actually wanted to include writers who didn’t fall under the rubric I had set up.  In fact, one of the authors, Ivan E. Coyote, who was one of the inspirations for the site and originally one of the writers I was so excited to read and talk about in the first place, started using the pronoun they.  I also wrote a review of a debut short story collection by Rae Spoon—another writer who uses they.  Oh yeah, and Elisha Lim’s amazing zine Favourite Dating Tales 2009-2013.  Most recently, I read and reviewed Brian Francis’s young adult novel about an assigned-male thirteen-year-old whose gender identity (present and future) is not that clear.  It was one of the things that I really loved about the book, actually.  All of this didn’t really fit in the constraints I had established.  Hmm.  What exactly had I meant by the term ‘woman’ anyway?

How problematic is it if I go so far as to say that I guess what I meant by ‘woman’ is ‘not-man’?  I know, I kinda sound like Monique Wittig.  If I continue to say that my site focuses on women, is it ever okay to include people who use the pronoun ‘they’ and/or identify as genderqueer? For example, in this recent interview with Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, Ivan Coyote talks about their complicated relationship to ‘woman’:

Take this interview, for example. I am really grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, but I don’t really identify as a woman, I identify as trans, and although I have struggled with the very same misogyny and homophobia and sexism that women writers do, I don’t really fit here. I don’t not fit either, and I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but the truth of it is that gender politics are complicated for me. I feel like even to speak here, I have to deny some part of myself, or, even worse, worry that I am taking up space where I shouldn’t.

There are two important things that I took from this interview.  The first was that it gave me a well-timed reminder about how misgendering is a form of violence and to be diligent about writing about people according to their self-identifications.  This is something that you would hope LGB writers would have no problem getting, but I recently had to let a lesbian fiction site know (twice, actually, before they changed anything) that it wasn’t okay to use ‘she’ for Coyote.  Pretty disappointing.

Ivan Coyote

I just really love Ivan Coyote’s work.  Also, this picture of them. (via http://www.uwinnipeg,ca)

The second is what I read into Coyote’s comment that they are taking up space where they shouldn’t.  The first thing that came to my mind is that this space for women is being offered to someone on the trans masculine scale but perhaps not to someone on the trans feminine one—even someone who simply identifies as a woman.  Maybe this isn’t what Ivan meant at all, or maybe they meant more than one thing.  But if you’ve followed the politics of the exclusion of trans women in queer women’s spaces (such as Michfest), you know exactly what I’m talking about: that fucking transmisogny disguised as ‘womyn-born womyn’ crap.  Transmisogny disguised as ‘feminism.’

So, by including folks on the trans masculine / male spectrum on my blog, I’m concerned about repeating or reinforcing the tendency in queer women’s communities to include this group at the exclusion of people on the trans feminine / female spectrum.  If you want to know more about this, see Julia Serano’s brilliant book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, as well as her latest (interesting but less ground-breaking) Excluded: Making Queer and Feminist Movements More Inclusive.  Like Serano, my experience in queer women’s communities has been to recognize a certain level of acceptance of trans men and people on the trans masculine spectrum as well as a glorification of masculinity that, as someone who is feminine, makes me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome sometimes.

Let me be clear: I’m not begrudging the place of trans men and trans masculine folks in my communities—but I am worried that this acceptance comes at the expense of people on the trans feminine / female spectrum.  I wonder why, for example, in the queer and trans basketball league I play in, I’ve met lots of lovely cis women and trans guys but no trans women.  Why do I know of so many more queer Canadian writers on the trans masculine / male scale than on the trans feminine / female one?

These are legitimate questions that I don’t have answers to.  So, I’m in the process of redefining the blog a bit.  I want to specifically include both writers who identify as women and those who don’t identify in the gender binary.  Articulating this succinctly is a bit troublesome, though.  I don’t want to define the blog by saying what I won’t or don’t want to talk about.  I want to put the emphasis on those writers who aren’t getting the attention they deserve, not back on the people everybody’s already talking about.  Who wants to follow a website called Casey The Canadian Lesbrarian: A Book Blog about Everyone except Cis Gay Men?

Posted in Butch, Canadian, Ivan E. Coyote, Lesbian, News, Non-Canadian, Queer, Shani Mootoo, Trans, Trans Feminine, Trans Masculine | Tagged | 7 Comments

Seemingly Simple Graphic Stories about Messy Coming-out Narratives: A Review of Diane Obomsawin’s On Loving Women

on loving womenOn Loving Women by Québécoise animator, graphic artist, and painter Diane Obomsawin is another really awesome book that I’m not sure I would have heard about if it hadn’t been sent to me to review!  So I am super happy to be able to share it with you all.  On Loving Women is a pretty quick read, and seemingly simple.  It’s a collection of comics about coming-out—specifically, Obomsawin’s friends and lovers.  It’s originally in French, and was translated by Helge Dascher.  While this book is simple, I’d like to unpack this simplicity a little bit and see what we can come up with.

The stories are brief, and at first, I was finding it a bit hard to differentiate between stories—the linguistic style changes a bit, but the graphic one doesn’t.  Maybe it’s because I read it so fast—because it’s graphic, and pictures are so much faster to digest than words.  But I also think that plain and simple I read it quickly because it’s really good and I didn’t want to put it down!  I’m also just not as attuned to visual art, so there may have been differences I just wasn’t picking up on.  In the end, though, it was kind of clever that the stories bled together, as a group of friends’ coming-out stories tend to do over the years of telling and re-telling them. 

diane obomsawinI like that the stories are little snippets without narrative arcs—I don’t mind the lack of clear beginning, middle, and end, as some readers might.  These are ‘real life’ stories after all, which don’t get the benefit of neat and tidy structures.  Although I’ve said elsewhere that it is really refreshing to read stories about queer characters doing things other than coming out, I do think that coming-out stories are wonderful and necessary and such a powerful part of our communities.  Having said that the little slices of life were great, one thing I would have liked to see is some of them be a bit longer, just so you could get a better sense of character.  I’m all about character, which you probably know if you read this blog.

The little unpretentious stories are matched by the simplicity of the drawings and the graphics are very powerful in their clean lines and minimal decoration.  The fact that the humans are drawn as other animals gives the book a kind of child-like feel, which is an interesting contrast to the sometimes really heart-breaking material.  For example, one woman’s mother repeatedly sent her away, took her out of school, and sent her to a gynaecologist, all varying methods of dealing with her daughter’s lesbianism.  It’s like viewing atrocities from the point of view of a kid who doesn’t quite understand the severity of what they’re witnessing.  Most of the characters in On Loving Women are teenagers, after all.  In fact, when you look closer at many of these stories, they’re not simple at all, but rather messy, poignant tales that don’t have the luxury of order.

on loving women panel

Diane’s story is my favourite of the group, especially because the ending comes back to a detail first mentioned at the beginning of the story: Mädchen in Uniform—an early German lesbian film she watches at the beginning of the story but is too scared to watch the kissing scene.  Of course, when she’s older she finally sees the part of the movie that she missed.  One of my other favourite moments is when a teenage girl says, after kissing a girl for the first time: “Huh, I didn’t realize girls could kiss.”  So cute.  There’s also one where the woman’s new girlfriend starts sleeping with her ex after she introduces them.  Oh, the lesbian drama!  Brutal!

I was glad to see a few different stories about late bloomers and women who dated men near the end of the collective, but I did feel like there was a lot about women who knew they were lesbians at an early age and who were gender non-conforming kids.  Since this collection only tells the stories of people Obomsawin is close to, though, maybe the lack of diversity there is understandable. Also, I am probably spoiled by recently reading Dear John, I Love Jane (review on the Lesbrary here).

Can you think of a better way to end such a collection than how the last story finishes: a woman falling out of bed after a lesbian threesome saying “women rock.”  Indeed.  Women rock, and so does Diane Obomsawin, and so does this book.

Posted in Canadian, Coming-of-age, Graphic, Lesbian, Montreal, Non-Fiction, Queer, Short Stories, Young Adult | Tagged , , | 2 Comments