My Favourite Bi+ Books of 2016 (So Far)

Happy #BiVisibilityDay! Yeah, yeah, 2016 isn’t over yet but I’m pretty sure these books are still gonna be some of my favourites at the end of the year. These book are all either written by bi/pan authors and/or have bi/pan main characters. Tell me about any bi+ books you’ve read this year and loved in the comments!

not-my-fathers-sonNot My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
I just finished listening to the audiobook version of this memoir, read by the author. The narrating was just as amazing as I’d expected, given that Cumming is a seasoned actor AND has a Scottish accent. What more could you ask for from a narrator, really? It’s a fascinating and sometimes brutal book about Cumming’s relationship with his abusive father and how being asked to appear on a celebrity genealogy show opened up more than one can of worms in his family history. Throughout it’s lovely to hear a bisexual person talk about his life (his ex-wife, his current husband) as if it’s just all normal and no big deal. He even refers to himself using the “b word.” Swoon!

All-Inclusive-high-resAll Inclusive by Farzana Doctor
This is a character-driven novel about Ameera, a woman in her late twenties who’s been living in Mexico and working in the tourist / travel industry for years. Since Ameera arrived, she’s discovered she’s bisexual and enjoys having sex with (mostly man-woman, but sometimes woman-woman) couples, many of whom identify as swingers. She’s from Hamilton, ON and was raised by a single (white) mother, having had an absent (Indian) father. All the good things in her life aside, she is totally lost. It’s such a joy to watch her slowly reconnect with herself and her history as the novel progresses. It’s also remarkable to watch Doctor tackle issues like all-inclusive resorts, bisexuality, swinging and polyamory, spirituality, death, and terrorism, somehow making it all work in the same book.

bushra-rehman-coronaCorona by Bushra Rehman
Corona—referencing the neighbourhood in Queens, NY, not the Mexican beer—is a “novel” that to me feels more like a collection of inter-related short stories about Razia, a young bisexual Pakistani-American Muslim woman, at different stages in her life. It’s beautifully written, for one thing: “Ravi was sitting in a corner, apart from the crowd. He was going back to India in less than a year, so everything he observed was for the warehouse of his mind. He’d seal the box, label it ‘My Time in America,’ and draw stories from it now and then to entertain the literary crowd in Delhi. That was the night I fell into the box.” There’s a great sense of place, character, and emotion in the book, and damn is it also really funny sometimes, even amidst sadness.

longredhairLong Red Hair by Meags Fitzgerald
A graphic memoir about growing up in the late 80s and 90s, Long Red Hair should incite lots of nostalgia for queer girls of that generation: it’s full of pop culture references of the time, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Meags is a kid interested in spooky stuff, so there are also sleepover games like Bloody Mary, séances, and dressing up as witches featured throughout. Coming out is another focus, and young Meags describes the process in perfect teenage agony: “I just want to be gay or straight. Being bisexual is way too confusing … If I’m bi that means I don’t have a soulmate and I’ll never be satisfied loving just one person for the rest of my life. It’d be like … a curse.” The memoir is also a meditation on relationships and the potentials of celibacy. Bonus!: the sepia-toned art is gorgeous.

Posted in Uncategorized, Bisexual, Graphic, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Farzana Doctor, memoir | Tagged , | 5 Comments

A Short Little Book of Weirdo Hilarity: A Review of Mariko Tamaki’s TRUE LIES

true liesHumour—what exactly each person finds funny—is such a personal thing. I mean, it’s about as personal as what turns you on and what kind of erotica/porn you like. So reviewing True Lies: The Book of Bad Advice, Mariko Tamaki’s collection of funny essays/stories-that-are-true-but-kind-of-not-true, and telling you which ones I thought were funny feels a bit weird. I mean, how am I to know what I think is funny is what anyone else would find funny?

So let me tell you all about this odd little book of writing that doesn’t quite know what it is. It reads very much like a comedy set, actually; you can just picture Mariko Tamaki standing up on a stage with a mic walking around telling you hilarious embellished stories about her life. (A lot of these stories were performed on various stages in Toronto, in fact). Reading this book is like sitting down for coffee with your really funny friend, and having to ask them when they’re finished, “No, but really. Did it really happen like that?”

Tamaki warns in the introduction: “I have no problem admitting that I am a liar at heart. It’s true. I am.” She then goes on to “compare lies to pearls: they look better strung together in a set.” Of course, when you’re reading the stories, you have no idea where the truth ends and the lies begin. But does it really matter?

Giving too much detail about the stories would ruin the punchlines, but let me select some choice titles to give you an idea of what’s in store here: “Reasons to Give a Blow Job,” “Cats Are Not People,” “Sometimes Psychics Let You Down,” and “The Epil-Lady vs. The Hairy Asian.” Those titles pretty much tell you everything you need to know. Can you imagine someone not inviting you to their orgy because you’re too hairy, especially for an Asian? How rude. There’s also a great fat- and body-positive story called “Angry Naked Women.”

Some of the most hilarious stories, however, have seemingly innocuous titles. “A Tawdry Dukes of Hazard” involves an unfortunate childhood misunderstanding of the word “molester.” There’s also an unfortunate misspelling of tights in this story, where a young Mariko needing a jazz dance uniform leaves a note for her parents indicating “Must have black tits by tomorrow.”

“Within Reason” provides an amusing list of reasons you may not be getting laid that have nothing to do with “greater forces” like astrology. Such reasons include your friends being too good-looking, everyone thinking you’re sleeping with your BFF, being a fag hag, and being a bad kisser and/or a bad dancer.Don’t worry there are elaborations on these reasons in case you’re thinking of protesting.

Mariko.Tamaki_14

Mariko Tamaki / via mochimag.com

In “An Open Love Letter to the Homos,” Tamaki tells us: “A lot of people think that the reason I love homosexuals is because I myself am gay. I seriously doubt this. There are a lot of people who are gay and don’t even like homosexuals, including themselves. It’s called QUEER LOATHING, and there are lots of movies about it. Chances are if you’ve ever seen a queer movie, unless it was a dirty porno, it was a queer loathing movie.” Ah, so sad and so funny and so true.

If you’re familiar with Tamaki’s other YA work like (You) Set Me on Fire, you’ll find a similar brand of dark humour in True Lies; it’s edgier and darker than some of her later work though, especially her most recent book Saving Montgomery Sole. And, of course, there’s all the grown-up stuff in True Lies that would never make it into a YA novel. While it’s not the most even of story collections—some I just, gasp, didn’t find funny—this short little book is well worth your time for the genuine hilarity that some of the weirdo tales provide.

Posted in Asian, Fiction, Lesbian, Mariko Tamaki, Toronto | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Something Old, Something New, Makes Something Blue: A Review of Lise MacTague’s DEPTHS OF BLUE

depths of blueDepths of Blue by Lise MacTague (book one in the Deception’s Edge series) belongs to a few genres I don’t normally read: military science fiction, and romance. So I honestly wasn’t quite sure how much I would like this novel when I picked it up having been generously sent it by the Winnipeg-born, US-residing author (whose other talents as described in her bio, I might add, include being a librarian and hockey player). I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Depths of Blue: while it never did anything totally unexpected, I rather enjoyed going along on its smooth, well-trod road full of tropes like: mistaken identities, space opera-ish drama, mounting sexual tension, women passing as men in the army, big patriarchal bad guys, and that-thin-line-between-love-and-hate. Oh, and some pretty steamy sex scenes.

So here’s the set-up: outer space, way far in the future after humans have colonized other planets—although some of the societies look eerily like versions of Trump’s America. Jak Stowell is from one of these worlds, although from the more progressive half which has been at civil war with the really really bad patriarchal dudes for decades. She’s a soldier in her country’s army, a sniper. No one, now that her brother is dead, knows she’s a woman. His death has given her a war within a war to fight: she’s determined to find her brother’s killer in enemy ranks and bring him to justice. She’s stoic, rational, and used to keeping all her emotions and true thoughts under wraps; she hasn’t let anyone get close for ages.

Torrin Ivanov is pretty much her opposite (of course, we’re setting up for the opposites-attract romance here). She’s a bad-ass, motorcycle-riding, outspoken, openly lesbian illegal arms dealer who flies from galaxy to galaxy negotiating and selling her way to the big bucks. Morals aren’t exactly a priority for her. In fact, when she and Jak cross paths, Torrin had gotten herself into a dilly of pickle after having intended to sell weapons to the creepy rapist dude bros Jak’s army is fighting [definite trigger warning in some early sections for strong allusions to rape]. Jak’s mission had been to kill the arms dealer, but no one had told her—or even realized—that this dealer was a woman. Jak can’t bring herself to do it.

lise mactague

Lise MacTague, via amazon.com

Ah, so we have the old “assassin-falls-in-love-with-the-person-they-were-supposed-to-kill.” It’s classic, but it’s also a lot of fun. The main tension of the romance, of course, is that Torrin is a lesbian and Jak is a woman disguised as a man, but neither of them are aware of this. Torrin is feeling oddly attracted to Jak but very puzzled as to why she likes this apparently male person. Jak is totally falling for Torrin but thinking that there is no way Torrin could ever love her when she finds out Jak is not a man.

For the most part I really enjoyed the layers of the romance element in Depths of Blue and had lots of fun reading those parts. I do think, however, it would have been more plausible if Torrin had been bi instead of gay. I mean, if Jak passes as a man, it doesn’t really make sense to me that Torrin would be attracted to her, unless you believe in some kind of gender essentialism where you can just “feel” what someone’s true gender identity is even though they’re trying to hide it. Admittedly, this is also my own bisexual agenda. But why not, I say?

This book does a fine job of balancing the romance and military action as Torrin and Jak make their way back to Jak’s side of the civil war and figure out how the hell they’re going to recover Torrin’s ship—trapped within enemy lines—so she can get off the planet. Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way they figure out they’re head over heels for each other.  It’s fun, it’s escapist, it’s got some well-done sexy times: what more could you ask for? Depths of Blue does a great job pulling together lots of tropes you might have seen or read before and creating something new enough, but still plenty familiar.

If I could change one thing, I would have liked to see the SF setting play more of a role in the plot of the book; there are some cool details about Jak’s planet, where a lot of the plant life is blue and there are these super cool giant blue trees (hence the title), but otherwise the romance and military plots could have taken place in any 20th century war on Earth. Unfortunately, even the horrible fascist misogynists would fit right into our not-so-distant history.

Being the first book in a trilogy, Depths of Blue of course ends on a cliff-hanger, with Torrin and Jak not sure if their love or their lives are gonna make it. Maybe we’ll see more world-building-related action in the second book as they fly off into space. I can’t wait to read it!

 

Posted in Caribbean, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Romance, Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

“Unspoken, the questions were like childhood garments stored carefully for decades within a satin-lined trunk”: A Review of ALL INCLUSIVE by Farzana Doctor

All-Inclusive-high-resToronto-based, Lambda-award-winning novelist Farzana Doctor’s latest book All Inclusive is nothing short of extraordinary. As always with Doctor’s novels (this is her third), there’s her trademark sharp insight into the human psyche and this gentle, calming, empathetic lens as she explores her characters. You can see how she is also a social worker who practices psychotherapy. But her latest book is what I’ve come to expect from her and more. As cliché as this might sound, I’ve really never read anything like All Inclusive before. It manages to take so many different themes and kinds of people, throwing them together to make this kind of magical, delicious soup of a story when you imagined it would turn into some inedible slop. Here are some of the ingredients:

Ameera is our main character. (Or is she really? That’s a bit debatable). At any rate, she’s our first focus in the novel and she’s a woman in her late twenties who’s been working in the tourist / travel industry for years and is coming up to the end of a contract working at an all-inclusive in Mexico. Her life there is far from the expectations of paradise that the entitled visitors, who she has to work with every day, have created.  Since Ameera arrived, she’s discovered she’s bisexual and enjoys having sex with (mostly man-woman) couples, many of whom identify as swingers. She’s from Hamilton, ON and was raised by a single (white) mother, having had an absent (Indian) father. So she has the brown skin of her fellow Indo-Canadians but doesn’t really have much of a connection to that culture. If I had to pick one word to describe Ameera, it would be: lost.

But just when you’re settling into her story, maybe feeling a bit scandalized by the mention on the second page of Ameera sleeping with a bodybuilder couple, the perspective of the novel shifts, and we get someone named Azeez, but back in 1985 instead of Ameera’s 2015. If you’ve read the back of the book, you guess immediately that Azeez is Ameera’s father and you know that he’s never been a part of her life. But you’ll probably never guess what his story is, and why he disappeared. Be forewarned: spoilers abound after this point (although in my opinion, they’re not that crucial, as they are revealed fairly early on).

Again, just as you’ve settled in to the alternating perspectives of Ameera and Azeez, wondering how one day they will finally meet, Doctor pulls the rug out from under you: Azeez was one of the 329 victims of the Air India bombing on June 23, 1985. Ameera will never know her father because he died before he even knew he was going to be one. Or will she?

I admit, after Azeez died, I thought, how is Doctor going to continue the book now? Without skipping a beat, as it turns out. As a spirit, Azeez resumes telling his story, which is far from over. This is one of the many unexpected, fascinating turns that the novel takes. If you were expecting a sexy beach read full of threesomes, well, you’ll get that, but it’s not all you’re going to get. Because of Azeez’s story, All Inclusive also becomes a deeply spiritual story that asks (and answers) some difficult, basic questions: what happens to us after we die? What effect do our ancestors and deceased loved ones have on us? How do we remember and honour all of those people who died? Can we communicate with people who have passed away?

photo of Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor, via farzanadoctor.com

In addition to spirituality, All Inclusive also has a lot to say about sexuality. I really loved how Doctor wrote about sexual exploration and sexual identity in this book. In this really amazing interview with Shelagh Rogers, she says that one of her motivations for the story was that she wanted to write about people from communities who are on the margins and less understood and break stereotypes about them. She also talks about sex-negativity and slut-shaming in our society, about how so many of us think and worry about sex all the time but are not actually that comfortable talking about it. You feel those motivations running through her writing about Ameera’s sexuality. The sex scenes are sexy and liberating, but also sometimes messy and awkward. If you’re not non-monogamous or don’t know much about non-monogamy, you might find yourself a little challenged.

Ameera’s sexual journey and exploration are portrayed as vital aspects of her, but not the only interesting or important parts about her as a person. She’s not a sex-crazed, duplicitous person even though she’s bisexual and non-monogamous, two groups often accused of both. And the swingers she dates are also shown to be all sorts of different people: one or two turn out to be jerks, but most are these interesting, flawed, kind people. I imagine that for some readers, this is one of, or perhaps the only, book that reflects their sexual identity and exploration of their desires without condemning or vilifying them. Doctor is also keenly aware that Ameera’s sexual exploration is an essential part of her growth as a person, figuring out what her needs, wants, and boundaries are in all areas of her life.

If someone had told me, hey, this new book All Inclusive is a critical look at all-inclusive resorts, bisexuality, swinging and polyamory, spirituality, death, and terrorism, I probably would have said, are you kidding? That sounds like a disaster. If someone had told me that same book was a vehicle to remember the Air India bombing as a Canadian tragedy, resisting the racism that resulted in the people who died not being considered “truly” Canadian because they had Indian background, I probably would have just not believed them.

How is it that Doctor has managed to take all these disparate themes and create a truly engaging, affecting novel that is also smart, sexy, and funny? I don’t know, but you should pick up the book to experience it for yourself.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Farzana Doctor, Fiction, Queer, South Asian | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Impossible Not to Love: A Review of BAND VS BAND COMIX by Kathleen Jacques

band vs band coverIn light of the recent horribleness of the Orlando massacre, I can’t imagine a better antidote than Band vs Band by Vancouver comic artist and graphic designer Kathleen Jacques, a collection of up-beat, adorable, femme-centric comics that couldn’t be queerer if it tried. It spans pretty much the entire rainbow, including L, G, B, and T identified characters. You might not guess who is what at the beginning of the comic, but as you continue to read, you’ll realize that pretty much every character is queer, which is like my favourite thing ever.

If you couldn’t tell from the title, Band vs Band is about a band rivalry: girl bands, to be specific, although technically each band has one boy. Jacques writes that the comic is her “elaborate love letter to everything [she’s] always found magical and appealing about bands as a concept, from real-life groups to ultra-stylized fictional depictions.” You’ll certainly recognize some of those magical and appealing elements as the comic reminds you of Josie and the Pussycats, and fully embraces stories like band road trip shenanigans where tour vans break down in the middle of the desert with band members contemplating cannibalism.

the candy hearts band vs band

Band # 1

So here’s the cast of characters: Honey Hart is the leader of The Candy Hearts and she couldn’t be more different from Turpentine and her band The Sourballs. Pretty much all you need to know about the bands are epitomized in their names. On the one hand, The Candy Hearts are all sweethearts who just want to do good with their sugary, poppy music, singing for charities about the importance of recycling and wearing sunscreen. The Sourballs, on the other hand, wear torn thrift store wedding dressing while singing punk songs. As Turpentine puts it herself: their songs are about such topics as “always remember to deny Christ and skip class,” “how I think I ate my twin in utero,” “surgery,” and “circus freaks.” Or as Honey calls them: “angry songs about vomit.”

the sourballs band vs band

Band # 2

The other band members are just as funny and interesting as Honey and Turpentine. I think my favourite is Atomic Domme, the bass player for the Sourballs. She’s a dry as fuck goth gender studies grad student who, when forced to take front stage when Turpentine passes out, takes the chance to educate the audience on early 20th century erotic feminist poetry. At one point, she forces her band to read through an experimental play that she wrote “about Victorian era social justice” featuring a character named “the patriarchy.” Second place goes to Damon, a self-described “arrogant and pretty” gay boy who always seems to be wearing his band costume of angel wings. At one point , he awakes from a dream in which he is married to a perfect clone of himself and sighs, disappointed: “ugh, this imperfect world.”

The format of the comics is unique and varied: sometimes you get a full page spread of a colouring page featuring the characters, or snippets from local newspaper articles about the bands, or random side stories about tangential characters, or, my favourite, a page helping you decide what your Sourballs and Candy Hearts names would be based on the initials of your real name. (Mine would be Minx Formaldehyde and Sugarcookie Soda, respectively).

what's your sourball name band vs band

What’s YOUR Sourball name?

Most of the time, though, the comics are about the cute, funny characters doing cute, funny things. When I say funny, I mean it: this comic is really, really funny. It had me laughing out loud many times with its dry, weird, on-point jokes. There are too many funny parts to name them all, but for example, while on stage at their first show after the whole band ate bad sushi, Turpentine yells “Yea! C’mon, let’s tear stuff up! We’re home and we’re no longer infested with parasites!” Her bandmate adds “Shout-out, east side drop-in medical clinic. You barely judged us.”

Slowly, slowly, as the comic goes on, Honey and Turpentine’s frenemy relationship develops. At some point, you’ll probably say to yourself “Ahhh, the lesbian sexual tension, I just can’t take it anymore!” Well you’ll just have to take it some more, and keep reading at the story unfolds, because Jacques’s careful timing is going to draw out this love/hate relationship to get the best out of it. You know the star-crossed lovers only ever get together right at the end, right?

Visually, this comic is as amazing as it is with characters, humour, and story. As Jacques puts it in the intro to volume one, she was going for “overtly feminine aesthetics and a fun design sense and retro inspiration.” These motivations are clear on every page, as Jacques’s detailed, 50s style drawings shine in the limited blue and red-pink colour palette. I mean, look at this:

bandvsband_72

In short, it’s impossible not to love Band vs Band. Get your copy of volume one here. You can also check out the more recent comics Jacques posts on her website every Monday.

Posted in Bisexual, femme, Gay, Graphic, Lesbian, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine, Vancouver | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Radical, Heroic Vulnerability: A Review of DIRTY RIVER: A QUEER FEMME OF COLOR DREAMING HER WAY HOME by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

dirty riverDirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a difficult book for me to review, for a few reasons. For one, it’s written by and written about intersecting communities that I’m not and will (likely) never be a part of: anarchist/punk groups, queer and trans people of colour (South Asian in particular), immigrants, disabled folks, and people living in poverty. This is an immensely raw, vulnerable book where Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is laying bare so many things about her life and struggles, in the most bad-ass way that makes it seem like vulnerability is the most radical, heroic thing. Not having endured many of the things that she has, though, makes it hard for me to feel like I’m even qualified to say anything about this book. (By the way, I decided to write about it only because I want to spread the word).

Another reason this is a hard review to write is that this was one of those books that I was expecting to love more than I actually did. (I hate when that happens!). It was on my “especially-excited-about” shelf on Goodreads for a while before I bought it at Little Sister’s LGBTQ bookstore in Vancouver a few weeks ago and I was super pumped to read it after I brought it home. A lot of why I was so excited was that I loved Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s last poetry collection, Bodymap, which I reviewed here. Bodymap is full of these gorgeous poems, full of beautifully put hard truths and comforting words about finding your people. I loved Bodymap and so was expecting to immediately love Dirty River too. When that didn’t happen, I was just … kind of bummed.

So here’s what Dirty River is about: it’s an account of Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s early post-college years, those years of self-discovery, figuring out what your future is going to look like, and confronting your past. For Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, those years were also simply a time of trying to survive. Here you will find the rough, unfiltered details of living in poverty, being an immigrant, and living with a disability. She also writes at length about the challenges of being mixed-race and finding her cultural identity after not having much of it passed on to her, which I imagine would be so affirming and amazing to read about if you were mixed-race. I learned a lot in those sections.

This book is also a testament to 90s era queer punks of colour activism in Toronto, where Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha runs away to. In that way, the memoir is a super fascinating window into a particular time and place that in many ways no longer exists. It’s about her struggling to fit in and connect with people in these radical communities, but remaining, as the blurb says, “haunted by the reasons she left home in the first place.”

This is not an easy book to read, and should come with multiple content/trigger warnings: intimate partner abuse, racism, incest. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha refuses easy answers and abuse narratives where people “get normal.” She writes in the preface that this memoir is “not an incest horror story book, and it’s not palatable either. In the end, I don’t get normal. I get something else.” She also writes that while her journey is heroic, it’s not heart-warming. This is definitely true, although I would say that it is, despite everything, hopeful. In second last chapter, she writes:

I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes I stop and close my eyes and send all these pictures of my life back to the kid I was, who is still back there, trying to survive. Prayer is activism.

I tell her: this is waiting, waiting. It doesn’t get better (but it did), it just changes. I pray it to her, promise her, say ‘Stay alive. This is what’s waiting for you. You will make it come to be.’

leah

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (photo by Naty Tremblay)

I’ve thought a lot about what didn’t really do it for me in this book, and I think ultimately it’s this memoir just suffers from the unevenness of the quality of writing. This is a book that has been a long time in the making, and, like artists of all different sorts, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s artistry has grown and expanded. For me, the writing in the early parts of the memoir just wasn’t the beautiful, mind-blowing style that I’m used to seeing from her. If there had been a narrative to latch onto, this might have carried me over to later sections, but Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha uses the style of short snippets of life and non-chronological telling (reminiscent of Lidia Yuknavitch’s beautiful memoir Chronology of Water which Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha acknowledges as an inspiration). Ordinarily, I can be really into that kind of thing—and Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha does this very well in the last quarter of the book especially—but because the writing wasn’t grabbing me in the first part, and there wasn’t a narrative to latch onto, the first sections of the memoir lagged for me. They didn’t lure me in with either beautiful writing or narrative and I had to push myself to keep reading, which I’m glad I did, the amazing second half being what it is.

Here’s a glimpse of what I loved in later parts of Dirty River; this is about being a femme and walking around New York in the early 90s not knowing anyone:

The air, the streets, the people touched me all over. I kept my eyes on some of them, flirted, looked away. I couldn’t find anyone to touch me, but in the meantime the air did, the world did. … Every cell of my body. Naked and tough, something new and beautiful, adorned. Learning these streets and how to walk down them. Learning how to find red silk in a bargain bin, to tighten straps to walk. To meet eyes. To swish my ass, to insist on the pleasure of thighs brushing together, glaring I will fucking kill you if you look at me.

More about being a femme:

For years I thought, a femme bottom—what is more common, what is more despised? Than a girl with her legs open. Wanting something. Just wanting.

I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. The whole world told me it was true. The whole world told me there was nothing  more common and stupid than someone feminine of centre with their legs open, wanting something more than a kick or a curse.

But what if there is nothing more precious than a femme with their legs open?

If our opening is a prayer it is for a world where opening without rape is possible

walk back
wade in the water
choose. every second. I choose to stay here. I learn to stay here.
I choose to open
every single second led to this.

I guess in the end what I really want to say about Dirty River is: while this wasn’t a 10 out of 10, life-altering book for me, I can really see that for folks who’ve gone through some of the same struggles, this memoir could be exactly that. If you think that might be the case for you, you should run, not walk, to get a copy of this book in your hands.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, disability, memoir, Non-Fiction, Postcolonial, Queer, South Asian, Toronto | Tagged | 3 Comments

“how to live with the baggage of life”: A Review of Jane Rule’s Memoir TAKING MY LIFE

taking my lifeI want to start off this review with a confession: Taking My Life, legendary Canadian lesbian writer Jane Rule’s memoir, was given to me as a review copy for this blog not long after I first began it in 2012. So, uh, it’s taken me like four years to read and—finally—review this book. I feel totally guilty for not holding up my end of the bargain, at least in a somewhat timely fashion. But I am finally writing this review in the end, and that’s got to count for something, right?

I’m not really sure why I put off reading Taking My Life. After all, Jane Rule is one of the foremothers of queer women’s writing in Canada and this memoir is her last known work. She’s a hella interesting early lesbian writer with a unique style, and if you haven’t read any of her books, you’ve at least heard of the film version of one of them, Desert Hearts. (The book, published in 1964, is titled Desert of the Heart and is an astonishingly complex look at a lesbian relationship). I’ve also reviewed another, (relatively) more recent novel of Rules’s Memory Board, which is set in Vancouver and is a fascinating look at a younger, more conservative Vancouver and a totally different generation’s understanding of queer identity.

Rule definitely has a distinct trademark style, which is evident even in Taking My Life. Her writing is dry, ironic, unemotional, and direct, yet understated. It is not the kind that you whip through; rather, it’s a languishing over, doubling back to catch the dry humour kind of prose. I find her style endlessly captivating while at the same time frustrating, like there are emotional truths and impact that Rule is just not giving me. After reading just the first paragraph of the memoir, I was taken aback, having forgotten what her writing was like:

Writing an autobiography may be a positive way of taking my own life. … I may be able to learn to value my life as something other than the hard and threateningly pointless journey it has often seemed. … No plan for a story or novel can rouse my imagination, which resolutely sleeps, feeding on the fat of summer. And so, I take my life, with moral and aesthetic misgivings, simply because there is nothing else to do.

jane rule

Jane Rule, via quotesgram.com

All right, so she readily admits she’s not really sure this whole memoir thing is going to work out; in fact, she likens the entire thing to suicide and claims that she’s only writing this account—which ends up telling the story of the first twenty-one years of her life—because she literally has nothing else to do and she’s bored. What a beginning.

On the next page, Rule calls her own mother “a materially spoiled and emotionally depraved only child.” On the next, this is how she describes her brother: “He was instinctively tactful, never made the blundering comments that were to become my trademark; yet he couldn’t distinguish between what had happened and what he made up. His teachers thought of him as overly imaginative. I suspect it was I, a moral primitive, who first called him a liar.”

Don’t hold back, Jane, tell us how you really feel. It’s this kind of refusal to beat around the bush and to get right to the psychological heart of her characters—real and fictional and, even in the case of this book, her own self—that make Jane Rule such a thought-provoking author. She’s never cruel, but she is brutally honest. It’s a trip to see her use these same strategies I recognize from her fiction when she’s writing about her family and friends.

young jane rule

A young Jane Rule in her college years; one of the archival photos from the memoir

Admittedly, this memoir likely won’t intrigue you much unless you’re already a fan of Jane Rule or you have a special interest in 20th century herstory. If you fall into either of those camps though, you’re in for a treat. Rule’s life, while not exceptional by any stretch of the imagination, is really quite interesting and it’s fun to look for the hints of her impending lesbian identity and career as a writer as she accounts for her early life. The book is also dotted with some lovely archival photos of a young Rule and a lot of her family members, friends, and lovers; as well, it sports an absolutely gorgeous cover featuring a painting of Rule by Ann Smith, who was a friend and lover of hers.

Like in her novels, Rule fills Taking My Life with some astonishingly acute observations about human behaviour. Take, for example, this seething, yet level-headed indictment of heterosexual norms:

Certainly most of the relationships I observed between the young women and men I knew had the same flavour of inauthentic romance I so mistrusted in Arthur [her brother]. The men wanted sex as cheaply as it could be had. The women wanted sex for as much as they could charge in attention, entertainment, and engagement rings. The women didn’t want to be known as cheap lays. The men didn’t want to be known as easy meal tickets.

In contrast, Rule describes her love—platonic and not-so-platonic—for women as completely different:  not self-interested, pure, and passionate. Looking back on her love for women, Rule writes that “I’m sure I was confused at the time. I seemed to hold two mutually exclusive views, that my love represented what was best in me and that it was a sin. Or more ambiguously and truly put, what was specifically good and generally bad.” Interestingly, Rule also writes at length about the non-possessive quality of her love for and relationships with women and how she and her lovers carry on relationships with other people at the same time as they move in and out of the same places in the world. The whole thing seems to me like a fascinating precursor to polyamory, before it was called that, of course.

sexy jane rule

And one more photo of Jane Rule, mostly because I think this one’s sexy (via amazon.com)

The memoir ends with Rule moving to England with a lover, having moved on from unrequited relationships, and ones where the women encouraged her to direct her love in a more suitable direction—i.e., men. It’s a shame that we don’t get to read more of her coming into her identities as a writer and a lesbian, because it seems like the memoir ends just when those parts of herself are really taking off. It makes me wonder what Rule would have thought about this distinctly unfinished piece of work. Taking My Life could have become a full autobiography, but it was published after her death, having been found in an archive in Vancouver by an academic (a fascinating story in its own right, I might add, that is told in the afterword). Did Rule not publish this because she didn’t want to? Would she not have wanted it published because it was unfinished? Did she not want to finish writing it?

But in the end, moral questions aside, I’m glad this work is accessible to the larger public, and in this gorgeous edition to boot. Rule has a lot to teach us, still, even after her death, about how “to learn how to live with the baggage of … life, its rhythms of failure and rebirth.”

Posted in Canadian, Jane Rule, Lesbian, memoir, Non-Fiction, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments