Queer Scare: LBQ Women’s Halloween Reads

Well it’s a dark, gloomy, rainy night in Vancouver and it seems particularly apt to start talking about some seasonally appropriate reads.  By that, of course, I mean queer Halloween books.

hauntingThe Haunting on Hill House by Shirley Jackson

What?

Published in 1959, Jackson’s novel is said by many to be the perfect haunted house story.  I listened to an audiobook version and well, the woman who reads it, Bernadette Dunne, nails the creepy tone interspersed with witty, ironic dialogue.  In a self-consciously contrived scenario, four strangers agree to spend time at a reputedly haunted house in order to find out if it’s really full of ghouls or not.  Jackson’s prose is sparse but muscular—like a marathon runner’s body.

Why?

This story gave me a deliciously creepy feeling and made me scared about going into my basement to do laundry.  It will have you asking questions like: is the old house really haunted?  Is one of the characters evil?  Is one of the characters crazy?  She’s supposed to be a lesbian, right?  Was that woman also a lesbian?  What about the other woman: she probably has lesbian feeling too, eh?

How Scary?

The terror in Haunting is more psychological than physical and it’s certainly not horror to my standards.  That said, it’s extremely creepy, although the scariness is supernatural.  One might argue that sexuality is the really scary current running underneath it all.  Still, though, I would caution you about reading (or listening to) this alone at night in a big old house.  Like I did.

fist of the spider womanFist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire edited by Amber Dawn

What?

A collection of erotic stories that is queer in more ways than one.  In a much more explicit way than Haunting on Hill House, Amber Dawn’s book takes up the intimate relationship between fear and sexuality, resulting in a tantalizing, sexy, terrifying, and gorgeous collection of short fiction and poetry.  Some of these are really scary; some are funny; some are mostly just going to turn you on.  There’s a fair amount of BDSM in here, but probably not as much as you’d think.  My favourites were Amber Dawn’s “Here Lies the Last Lesbian Rental in East Vancouver,” which is part ghost story, part anti-gentrification treatise, and part mean mommy and little girl kinky erotica and “Slug” by Megan Milks, which is the fucking weirdest story I’ve ever read (I mean that in the best way possible).

Why?

The diversity of this collection—in tone, author background, different kinds of LGBTQ characters, content, and form—is really astounding.  Also, I bet you’re interested in the imperative behind the anthology: “Maybe you remember this happening to you—a renegade coming of age when you realized that being different isn’t such a bad thing after all, a time when you stopped wishing you fit into the crowd and started building an identity based on standing out from it”; standing out, though, she reminds us, often means being afraid.  What women who break out from the crowd are especially good at, however, is “revamping what burdens us, subverting things to our own advantage.” The aim in these ventures generally, as in this collection, is “not to quell our fears, but to embrace them”; to own, reclaim, and twist what is scary.

How Scary?

There’s a range of really not scary at all to fucking terrifying (in particular, Aurelia T. Evans’s “In Circles” scared the shit out of me).  You are warned. [Also, I’ve reviewed the collection in more detail here].

Marcy Rogers via twitter

Marcy Rogers via twitter

Marcy Rogers’s stories in Friend. Follow. Text. and Zhush Redux

What?

Marcy Rogers is a Toronto-based author whose writing straddles the line between humour and the grotesque.  All of her micro-fictions in Zhush Redux and her story in Friend. Follow. Text. are wonderfully imaginative and strange and dark.  “Drawn Out,” for example, begins like this: “I know it sounds crazy, but my lover Miranda has a tattoo that talks to me.”  This protagonist begins to wish, in fact, that “Miranda was a tattoo on Tempest’s body instead of the other way around.”  How will these star-crossed lovers stay together?  In Friend. Follow. Text. Rogers’s story “IMHO” also investigates in/sanity in a way reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe.

Why?

 How about this excerpt from “IMHO” to whet your appetite?

“The decision to kill Scott was not an impulsive one.  It had evolved over time from a feeling of irritation to the embarkation of a heroic quest.  A quest in which Jude would slay the…sometimes he wished Scott would take up drag so he could say he was off to slay the drag queen.  But while some of his best friends wore dresses, Scott himself preferred tight jeans.”

“Jude liked to imagine Scott’s jeans getting tighter and tighter until he was squeezed right out of them like ground-beef toothpaste from a tube.”

How Scary?

Creepy, but not likely a cause of terror-induced insomnia.  Also, the melange of humour and horror takes some of the sting of terror out.

skin folkSkin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

What?

An absolutely fabulous collection of fantasy and science fiction short stories, some of which are seriously chilling.  Two stories in particular really freaked me out: “Snake,” (from the perspective of a straight pedophile) and “The Glass Bottle Trick” (a brilliant story interrogating shadism and a woman finding out what happened to her husband’s mysteriously dead former wives).  There is more than one story that takes up supernatural Caribbean creatures such as duppies—spirits/ghosts—as well as Lagahoos, Soucouyants, and other kinds of “skin folk”: people who aren’t what they seem.

Why?

It’s a privilege to have access to a mind as brilliant and imaginative as Nalo Hopkinson’s.  There is story after story in this collection that makes you think: “How could this have come from the brain of a human being?”  The diversity of stories here also showcases Hopkinson’s talent for character voice: she moves effortlessly from Caribbean patois to future urban Torontonian speech, from men to women, and young to old.

How Scary?

More often than not the stories here are chilling, rather than outright terrifying.  However, the story following the pedophile is a terror-inducing exception.

affinityAffinity by Sarah Waters

What?

An historical gothic novel set in England in the 1870s that follows an affair between an inmate at a woman’s prison and an upper-class lady visitor.  A fascinating look at the 19th century women’s prison system as well as the wide-spread belief in ‘spiritualism’—i.e., ghosts and the supernatural—in the Victorian period.

Why?

Waters is always a pleasure to read, and this novel is one of her least-discussed and underrated despite the fact that it’s a fantastic read.  It’s subtle, erotic, mysterious, and suspenseful.  If you thought Victorians were all proper and stuff and wouldn’t have anything to do with supernatural nonsense, it’ll be illuminating to read about the gigantic spiritualist subculture that existed, including séances and ‘holidays’ at haunted houses.

How Scary?

Haunting, I would say this novel is, rather than actually scary.  It’s too subtle for horror and the suspense is focused on what the true motives of the inmate are: does she love her visitor, or is she using her?

Posted in Amber Dawn, Anthology, Asian, BDSM, Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Erotica, Fantasy, Fiction, Indigenous, Lesbian, Nalo Hopkinson, Poetry, Postcolonial, Queer, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Toronto, Vancouver | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

I Hate Canadian Nature Poetry; Or, Why I Didn’t Like Arleen Paré’s Governer-General-Award-Nominated Lake of Two Mountains

lakeWell, what a coincidence.  I was just finally sitting down today to write a review of Arleen Paré’s poetry collection Lake of Two Mountains and guess what popped up on my social media feed.  Paré has been nominated for  the Governer General’s award for poetry!  This is obviously fantastic news for Paré and for queer Canadian literature lovers—she’s one of two queer woman nominated for a GG this year (Mariko Tamaki is nominated in the children’s literature category).  (In other Canadian literary prize news, Shani Mootoo’s new novel Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab was on the longlist for the Giller Prize, but failed to make the shortlist).  I’m always happy to see queer Canadian women nominated for the big awards, especially since they come with much-needed financial support!  So I am glad that Paré has been nominated.  This is despite the fact (gulp) that I didn’t really enjoy her book that much.

With full knowledge that some people (possibly more qualified than me) liked this book, here’s why it didn’t really do anything for me:

  1. CANADIAN. NATURE. POETRY. Except for very exceptional exceptions (am I allowed to use those two words together?), I just really don’t want to read any Canadian nature poetry ever again in my life. Maybe this is because I wrote a qualifying Ph.D. exam in Canadian literature and was forced to read way too many terrible poems by such racist douchebags as Duncan Campbell Scott. Paré actually quotes Archibald Lampman (a contemporary of Scott’s) in the epigraph to one of her poems! In any case, I think I’ve had my lifetime’s worth already.  I would never give a book like Lake of Two Mountains to a Canadian unless they told me they loved nature poetry, because it’s just the kind that most Canadians have been forced to read at some point in their years as a student: the kind of poetry that puts you to sleep, makes you think all poetry is boring, and stops you from reading any (Canadian) poetry ever again.  I’d like to surprise people with what kinds of poetry  is being written in Canada today, not confirm their worst suspicions.
  1. I have no emotional connection to rural Ontario. So I can see how someone who does, especially to the lake country, might like these poems.  My personal connection to the lakes in Ontario is someone suggesting we go to the “beach” one day when I lived in London and bitter disappointment when I realized they meant the fucking lake and that the ocean wasn’t miraculously closer than I had somehow believed. I’m sorry, but the lake is NOT the beach!  Someone who went to the “cottage” in the summer would probably connect with these poems too.  Me?  The word cottage still sounds unbelievably snooty to me, but the Ontarians really don’t mean it that way.  I hope.  But anyway, I much prefer how Nova Scotians say “the camp” or my go-to, “cabin.”  By the way, there’s quite an interesting old Globe and Mail article about the regional linguistic differences in Canada for that nature weekend getaway, if you’re nerdy like me and so inclined.
  1. Some parts of this collection made me feel like I was reading something that should have been titled “The Settler’s Lament.” Like this segment of the poem “Kanesatake”:

not that you live here but

would you leave if you had to

(your life being trespass)

and where would you go?

to Ireland’s south-west where your mother’s people are from

or to Antrim where your father’s father            or Glasgow

where your father was born

displacements and exile

this not being your people’s original place

 

can you go back

to where

you never have been?

I don’t know, this just sounds eerily like the kind of ignorant dumb-ass with settler-background saying today in response to Indigenous activism: “What am I supposed to do, go back to England?”  We’ve heard enough of settler perspectives on these issues; it’s time to listen to Indigenous people.

  1. Also, God. I don’t care about God.  Especially not old missionaries and imperialist churches and some dude named Frère Gabriel.  End of story.

How about I end with the one poem in Paré’s collection that I liked?  No doubt about it, Paré has a beautiful way with words.

Ghosts Moving in Forested Shade

light through the low woods

unbinds clavicle       soles

trompe d’oeil

deciduous shadow and shudder

quiver with unabashed shine

 

what is fixed in the truth is in flux

sleights the eye    there is goodness

there are ghosts moving

faster than the wind   through low bush and leaves

they move more surely than light

 

Posted in Canadian, Indigenous, Lesbian, Poetry, Queer, Rural, Victoria | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Best Bisexual Women’s Literature

“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” –Robyn Ochs

Yay! It’s bisexual awareness week! Okay, okay I know I’m a bit late to the party. (Bi awareness week technically ended on the 27th). But having relatively recently come out as bi, it’s pretty exciting to have this visibility thing happening for a whole week! I hope that LGBT and non-LGBT media continue to be AWARE after the week ends. One thing I’d like to see is authors and characters correctly identified as bi / some other non-monosexual term instead of gay or straight.

Because books are how I process almost everything, of course lately I’ve been reading lots of non-monosexual books, some of which have become close to my heart.  But I’ve also realized that a lot of my favourite queer titles were bi all along, I just wasn’t paying enough attention!  So, here are my personal favourite books featuring and/or by bisexual women. Don’t fret if something you love isn’t on this list—I haven’t had time to read everything yet, so please let me know what bi book I should read next!

my educationMy Education – Susan Choi
This book won the latest Lambda Literary award in the bisexual category, but it’s not why I love it, despite it NEVER using the word bisexual to describe either of its lead female characters. It’s got juicy, exquisite, wordy writing that kind of sounds like it’s 19th century and it’s a student/professor affair made anew, set in an academic context which is described affectionately yet critically. Choi pays really close attention to what her characters are doing and saying. A lot of this description of both mundane and profound events is strikingly beautiful and wise. Like here:

My youth was the most stubborn, peremptory part of myself. In my most relaxed moments, it governed my being. It pricked up its ears at the banter of eighteen-year-olds on the street. It frankly examined their bodies. It did not know its place: that my youth governed me with such ease didn’t mean I was young. It meant I was divided as if housing a stowaway soul, rife with itches and yens which demanded a stern vigilance. I didn’t live thoughtlessly in my flesh anymore. My body had not, in its flesh, fundamentally changed quite so much as it now could intuit the change that would only be dodged by an untimely death, and to know both those bodies at once, the youthful, and the old, was to me the quintessence of being middle-aged. Now I saw all my selves, even those that did not yet exist, and the task was remembering which I presented to others.

nudeThe Last Nude – Avery Ellis
Both of the women featured in The Last Nude are bisexual, although you don’t often see the book described as such. This historical novel, set in Paris in the decadent 1920s period between the two world wars, is an easy book to sink into and love. From the first unassuming sentence (“I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred francs”), The Last Nude is captivating and delightful. The writing is exquisite; the characterization rich; and the setting wonderfully and lovingly rendered in superb detail. It’s a fascinating look into the queer smoky Bohemian world of artists through the eyes of Rafaela Fano, an Italian-American Jew who is also experiencing it for the first time. Rafaela (her actual last name isn’t known) is a real historical person about whom we don’t know much except she was Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka’s model and inspiration for some of her most arresting works, including La Belle Rafaela, which graces the cover of the novel. One of my favourite parts about the book is how it charts Rafaela’s (re)discovery of her body and her sexuality:

Ever since my sixteenth birthday, my body had felt like a coin in an unfamiliar currency: small, shiny, and heavy, obviously of value to somebody, but not to me… My body felt coincidental to me—I could just as easily be a tree, a stone, a gust of wind. For so long, I still felt like the ten-year-old me, skinny as a last wafer of soap, needling through Washington Square on her way to Baxter Street. But my months with Tamara had worn away the lonely old questions and replaced them with a greed of my own: my body was just a fact, this night, a kind of euphoria. I coincided with it, and with the dancing crowd. Throbbing with the horns and drums, we formed a waterfall passing over a light, each of us a drop, a spark, bright, gone. The music danced us, and I knew it wouldn’t last, this body I’d learnt to love.

biBi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution – Shiri Eisner
It’s hard to summarize my feelings about this book in a short space, and they are definitely complicated, but Notes for a Bisexual Revolution is the best scholarly look at bisexuality I’ve read. I feel like it’s a great first read on feminism as well as a primer on important feminist and queer terms. Eisner clearly and succinctly deals with a ton of stereotypes about bi people, gay/straight-washing of bis, and the fact that bisexuality is often accused of ‘reinforcing the gender binary’ and otherwise contributing to the dominant social order. She also writes—to varying levels of success— about intersections between bisexual activism with trans, anti-racist, feminist, and anarchist thought. What I really loved about Notes for a Bisexual Revolution is that it put into words a lot of things I had felt and thought about bisexuality and biphobia (as a lesbian and then bi-identified woman) but had never taken the time to analyze. For example, she looks at the two myths of “everyone is really bisexual” and “bisexuality doesn’t exist” as two sides of the same coin: monosexist discourse trying to deny the legitimacy and uniqueness of bisexuality. Although I disagreed with a portion of this book, it certainly got me thinking a lot about my experiences with bisexuality and biphobia. It’s a reassuring book in a lot of ways, reassuring in the way Eisner calls Ochs’s definition of bisexuality: that it’s okay to be messy and complicated—in fact, that that’s something to be valued rather than apologized for.

marblesMarbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me – Ellen Forney
Bisexual cartoonist Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir about her bipolar disorder is truly an amazing, beautiful book. Her sexuality doesn’t play a huge part in the narrative, but then again, it’s always refreshing to read about a queer character whose life obstacles are not related to their queerness. I loved the way that Forney looks at the intersections between art and madness and the stereotype of the mad artist that seems to have come to life in her own existence. Can you imagine a psychiatrist telling you that what you thought of as your personality is actually a mental illness? The black-and-white drawings are crisp and clear but emotional and hard-hitting. It’s funny, smart, thought-provoking, and miserable at times, but never devoid of hope. I really loved this book.

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me by Ellen Forney.Marbles_Forney_P23_Panel3_Balloons

 

 

the salt roadsThe Salt Roads – Nalo Hopkinson
The Salt Roads is historical fiction like The Last Nude, but it’s also many other fictional things: spiritual, fantastical, and magical. I love how The Salt Roads takes on the epic task of re-crafting space for historical bisexual/queer black women and takes it even farther than you thought it could be taken. Stretching over three continents and ranging from the 4th century to the 19th, this ambitious novel tells the story of Mer, who is a loving but hard woman and a doctor, midwife, and plantation slave in mid 18th century Saint Domingue (Haiti). 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.” The other non-monosexual character is Jeanne Duval, a biracial woman originally from Haiti living in Paris; she was the real life long-term lover and muse of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire. Both women are searching for freedom in different ways and their journeys (along with a re-imagined Saint Mary of Egypt) are really a joy to read.

How do I know anything? How is it that my arms stretched out in front of me are so pale? How do I even know that they should be brown like riverbank mud, as they were when I was many goddesses with many worshippers, ruling in lands on the other side of a great, salty ocean? I used to be many, but now we are one, all squeezed together, many necks in one coffle.

adaptationAdaptation – Malinda Lo
I’m pretty sure this book is going to go down in history as the best bi sci-fi (or should that be sci-fi bi?) young adult book ever. It’s a tense, roller-coaster ride kind of book that keeps you up late at night wondering what is going to happen next. Not only are there government conspiracies, aliens, and X-Files type stuff happening, there’s also a bisexual love triangle! What more could you want in a book? Oh, great writing about teenagers kissing? A racially diverse cast of characters? Cliff-hanger endings? Characters openly and explicitly talking about bisexuality? Oh wait, this book has all of that too!

Kissing Amber was like falling into the sea: her body surrendered to the pull of the tide, buoyed by the saltwater, every breath tasting like the ocean. Reese lost all sense of where the surface was. All there was, was this. Amber’s lips, her tongue, her hands stroking back Reese’s hair, curling around her head and holding her steady.

candaceDear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women – Edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre
This is a vast, encompassing anthology that has every kind of coming out story that you’ve never heard. Dear John was so important for me as someone who’s never identified with the “I’ve always known”, or the “I was a gender non-conforming kid so it figures”, or the “I fell in love with a girl when I was five” stories. It was so validating to read a book where many of the stories really felt like they could actually be about me! There’s a huge range of (white, middle-class) experience in this book. There are women who were never happy with men. There are women who’ve only really been attracted to one woman. There are women in this book who married men in good faith, and were completely blindsided by their later (sometimes exclusive) attraction to women. There are some women who open up their relationships with men to date women. There’s even one woman in here who stays married to her husband after coming out as a lesbian. There are women who identify as bi, lesbian, queer, and some who are uncomfortable labelling or naming their sexualities at all. There is one woman who falls in love with a woman for the first time at age sixty-nine. Sixty-nine!! It was awesome to see women questioning conventional understandings of sexual orientation—that model that’s built for gay men that just doesn’t seem to do a lot of LBQ women justice.

holding stillHolding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall
This Torontonian novel about two bi cis women and a straight trans guy is just plain old awesome. It’s a love triangle, or more precisely square, eerily involving fictional versions of pretty much everyone I ever knew in my early to mid twenties (i.e., white, bike-riding, middle-class, artsy, educated, FAAB queers). It’s a hilarious novel, irreverent and dark and cynical in just the right places, and heartfelt when you need a little bit of that. Whittall knows who and what she is talking about and you won’t read another book about this specific generation of queers that gets them and puts it into wittier words than Whittall. One of my favourite quotations comes from Amy, a spoiled semi-rich filmmaker who spends a lot of money to look broke and artsy, right after her 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.

This, and many other snippets of wisdom, made me laugh out loud, and the fact that both Amy and Billy (the other girl) are bisexual made Holding Still a really gratifying read me. It was awesome 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!

chronologyThe Chronology of Water – Lidia Yuknavitch
The synopsis on the inside cover declares, “This is not your mother’s memoir.” I’m not really sure what exactly your mother’s memoir would be like, but it’s true that Yuknavitch’s book is not for the faint of heart, both in terms of content and style. Chronology opens, for example, with this: “The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses…” Yuknavitch does not hold back, sharing intimate details about, most of all, her body: drug use, child birth, destructive relationships, abuse, swimming, and a lot of sex (with women and men). What I really enjoyed was how Yuknavitch handled such so-called scandalous material: as if it were ordinary. She is adamant that this is a feminist work, that it’s not the ‘right’ kind of book about overcoming addiction or sexual abuse, that it opposes “the tyranny of culture telling women who they should be.” In the same way that Yuknavitch refuses conventions as regards the memoir’s content, she slashes any stylistic and narrative expectations you might have and spins them around, backwards, forwards, and backwards again. While she sometimes writes a scene in a straightforward, beginning-to-end-style, she will then begin the next chapter by telling you that wasn’t exactly how it happened. No matter what style, Yuknavitch is unquestionably an extremely talented wordsmith. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

My first book came out of me in a great gushing return of the repressed. Like a blood clot had loosened. My hands frenzied. Words from my whole body, my entire life, or the lives of women and girls whose stories got stuck in their throats came gushing out. Nothing could have stopped the stories coming out of me. Even though my hands and arms and face hurt—bruised and cut from falling from a train—or a marriage—or a self in the night—I wrote story after story. There was no inside out. There were words and there was my body, and I could see through my own skin. I wrote my guts out. Until it was a book. Until my very skin made screamsong.

indigoIndigo Springs – A.M. Dellamonica
I’m really surprised this book isn’t more well known and that it took me so long to find it! It’s a fantastic fantasy novel featuring a bisexual protagonist and innovative world-building. Indigo Springs takes on the old idea that magic has unexpected and perilous consequences and spins it into a kind of magical apocalypse, bringing it to life in small-town Astrid’s world. Told in two contrasting narratives, one that takes place after the shit hits the fan so to speak, and the other explaining how everything got so bad, the novel manages to sustain your suspense and hope that the trio (Astrid, her best friend/long-term crush, and ex-step-brother who’s in love with her) will prevent the catastrophe you already know has happened. Although some of the characters are unlikable, I found them fascinating and really realistic; Sahara, Astrid’s best friend, for example, is the kind of self-serving person whose charismatic appeal is undeniable. And Jack, the step-brother, is the kind of nice guy who might let you walk all over him and that’s why you don’t like him as much as you should. The characters are big and flawed and complex. I also really liked Dellamonica’s snappy, no-nonsense prose. Oh yeah, and there’s an enormous river of blue gooey magic called vitagua underneath the fireplace in the house Astrid has inherited that has been confined to the cold underworld for too long and is dying to get out into the world, and into people’s veins.

Posted in Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Coming-of-age, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic, Nalo Hopkinson, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Queer, Rural, Science Fiction, Young Adult | 3 Comments

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