Canadian Queer Women’s Classics: A Top Ten Must-Read List

So, I recently did a bit of googling (asking Lord Google, as my friend would say) to find out what is usually included on lists of must-read “lesbian” books, or lists of “lesbian” classics.  I’m putting lesbian in scare quotes there because I’m pretty resentful about having to use just this search term, when what I really mean is bi/queer/lesbian/otherwise non-hetero women identified authors, characters, and books.  But such is the status of googling today.

A great YA novel, totally featuring a bi, not lesbian, teenager

A great YA novel, totally featuring a bi, not lesbian, teenager

I’m all for book lists and I love to debate about what is a must-read and what isn’t in the realm of queer lady writing.  But (wo)man, some of these lists suck.  Part of this is the same problem I had with search terms: lists claim to tell you all the books “gay ladies” should all read, or the “lesbian” classics you can’t miss, while totally erasing non-monosexual authors and characters.  Oh like, Alice Walker, for example, who identifies as bi.  Or the explicitly bi main character in Sara Ryan’s YA classic Empress of the World that is totally erased in this list from Buzzfeed.

These lists are also overwhelmingly white.  Curve Magazine, for example, published this top ten list a while ago of classics “every lesbian should read”; there are definitely books I would consider must-reads included here, such as Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, and Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith.  Curve’s list, however, is dominated by white American authors (it contains only three British writers, one woman of colour, and no other nationalities).  The Color Purple—as a Canadian it’s really weird for me to spell the word colour without a u but I am trying to stay true to the actual title—by Alice Walker seems to be the only book by a woman of colour that consistently makes these lists, which is pretty disappointing.

Autostraddle also has a list of classics that is more spot-on than Curve’s in nailing the tried-and-true books; it includes

  1. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  3. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  4. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  5. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
  6. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
  7. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
  8. The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolklas by Gertrude Stein
  9. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  10. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
I just read this amazing novel and can't believe it took me so long.

I just read this amazing novel and can’t believe it took me so long.

Again, though, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is the only novel by and about a woman of colour (Jewish writer Gertrude Stein makes the list as well).  Many of these are excellent books worthy of being deemed must-reads, but where are the Canadian authors?  Where is the racial and ethnic diversity?  Why are there usually people on the trans masculine spectrum (Leslie Feinberg and Radclyffe Hall) but never any trans women?

With those questions in mind, I decided to make a top ten list of Canadian queer women’s must-read books.  Most of what I’ve included are not as old as those classics mentioned elsewhere, but I have chosen them with the idea that they are those kinds of books that will remain relevant well after the context in which they were published is a dim memory.  A number of them are relatively older texts, especially in the context of queer Canadian writing: Ana Historic was published in 1988, Memory Board in 1987, In Another Place, Not Here in 1986.

Without further ado, here is the list, in no particular order:

landing-by-emma-donoghue_5790661Landing by Emma Donoghue (2007) (reviewed here)

This smart romantic comedy in book form has a heart of gold, but ample doses of wit and sarcasm.  Set in both small-town Ontario and Dublin, Landing chronicles a long distance and cross-cultural romance.  This book is not only a great character study of the two women at its heart, but the supporting characters are dynamic, funny, and authentic. There’s nothing extraordinary about this book, but it’s perhaps that very quality, combined with Donoghue’s exceptional talents for dialogue, characterization, and old-fashioned storytelling, that make Landing the kind of book that keeps you up at night.

cormorant-BottleRocketHeartsBottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (2007) (reviewed here)

Bottle Rocket Hearts is essentially about a young white Anglophone in Montreal, Eve, gaining her street (queer, feminist) cred.  She’s is a 90s rebel girl, screaming along with Kathleen Hanna as she rides her bike down Montreal’s Ste Catherines street in her silver spray-painted doc martens.  Not despite, but because of her irreverent, dead-pan comments such as “I don’t have bad self-esteem, I’m realistic,” Eve is an instantly likable character who makes you root for her throughout the novel, which also follows the 1995 Quebec Referendum.

anaAna Historic by Daphne Marlatt (1988) (reviewed here)

This novel is unabashedly post-modern and experimental, written in an explicitly feminist style that rejects linear, conventional storytelling in the same way that the protagonist Annie rejects her conventional heterosexual lifestyle.  While Annie buries herself in feminist archival work trying to discover Canadian women’s history, she meets and makes a connection with a woman artist there; feminist past, then, meets queer future in this beautiful, ecstatic book.

cereus blooms at nightCereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo (1996) (reviewed here)

Filled with both luscious writing and the sights, smells, and sound of a fictional Caribbean island, this multi-generational novel follows a large cast of mostly queer characters (including bisexuals, and trans feminine and masculine people).  It’s a book that deals with some hard truths {trigger warning for incest and sexual abuse} but that is unbelievably beautiful and full of hope and joy as well.

Brand-Another-PlaceIn Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand (1986) (reviewed here)

In both form and content, In Another Place, Not Here is simply a stunning book. Brand weaves an emotionally charged narrative that at times hits as hard as a physical assault, at others as softly as a warm wind. You read not so much to ‘find out what happens’ but rather to ride the tumultuous wave of the two Afro-Caribbean women’s, Elizete and Verlia, intertwined emotionally and spiritually fraught journeys.  As always, Brand’s writing is strikingly, effortlessly beautiful, and her political message is unrelenting and brave.

skimSkim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (2008) (reviewed here)

Skim has a wonderful balance of teenage angst, earnestness, and heightened emotion. And although it takes the classic form of a teenage girl’s diary, this graphic novel is anything but what you might expect from that format.  It’s a subtly moving work of art, both visually and linguistically, that addresses all sorts of relevant topics for queer teens—suicide, depression, racism, homophobia—while still managing to be fun and decidedly unpreachy.

safe girl to loveA Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett (2014) (reviewed here)

This clever, moving, darkly funny collection of stories mostly about trans women was my favourite read last year.  Plett has a great eye for authentic dialogue and a feel for all sorts of different kinds of characters.  She has written trans women as complex, fascinating but regular human beings–in both the good and the bad ways–with humour, passion, and intelligence. The stories are set in as diverse places as New York, Winnipeg, and rural Oregon.  Also, one story features a talking cat.

memory boardMemory Board by Jane Rule (1987) (reviewed here)

Of all the books on this list, Memory Board probably feels the oldest, not only because it’s set in the 80s but because its main characters are in their 60s.  The book focuses on one woman’s reconciliation with her twin brother later in life.  Their separation was homophobia-induced, and Vancouver in this novel feels like an ignorant town rather than today’s thriving queer-friendly metropolis.  This is a beautiful, understated novel about an aging lesbian couple struggling with issues of loss and memory.

skin folkSkin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson (2001) (reviewed here)

One of the most imaginative collections of fiction I have ever read, Skin Folk is wonderfully diverse: genre-wise, it includes erotica, science fiction, fantasy, and fairy tale and Hopkinson really shows off her command of different writing styles and dialects (particularly Canadian and Caribbean) depending on the speaker and setting of her stories.  This book is a testament to the incredible abilities of the human imagination.

wanting in arabicWanting in Arabic by Trish Salah (2002)

It’s hard to know what to call this collection: poetry?  Memoir?  Erotica?  It also won the Lambda for transgender fiction last year, so I suppose it’s that as well.  It’s a dense, philosophical, mythical work, evoking ages old poetic topics and tropes, like comparing roses and love, and somehow making them new.  Like Marlatt’s book, it’s also an investigation of a feminist mode of writing, as well as a transsexual one.

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Asian, Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Daphne Marlatt, Dionne Brand, Emma Donoghue, Erotica, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic, Jane Rule, Lesbian, Mariko Tamaki, Montreal, Nalo Hopkinson, Non-Canadian, Poetry, Postcolonial, Queer, Romance, Rural, Science Fiction, Shani Mootoo, Short Stories, South Asian, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine, Vancouver, Young Adult, Zoe Whittall and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Canadian Queer Women’s Classics: A Top Ten Must-Read List

  1. Naomi says:

    Thanks for this list- there are many here I would like to read! And, it’s nice to have one that is all Canadian.

  2. Jaz says:

    Two members of my community on this list! So proud to be a Pegger. Hah.

  3. Reblogged this on Sista Outsider and commented:
    I’ve read several of the books on this list. What about y’all?

  4. Widdershins says:

    I sense an annual Casey list has been born. 🙂

  5. susan huber says:

    How could you forget, ‘Gotta Find Me An Angel’ by Brenda Brooks? She lives on the west cost of Canada. Love this book! It is subtle with terrific funny voices and a wonderful story of first love.

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