Internet Hate Mail Becomes a Moving, Complex Graphic Memoir in Vivek Shraya and Ness Lee’s DEATH THREAT

It’s not surprising since the graphic memoir Death Threat is by the versatile, multi-talented artist Vivek Shraya, but her latest book is completely unique and unlike anything I’ve read before. Shraya has, somehow, turned an experience of internet hate mail into a moving, complex short book with bright, evocative illustrations by Ness Lee.

The book begins by addressing the email sender directly, as you: “you hunted me down.” Shraya goes on to share pieces directly from the actual first email she was sent. (She describes later in the book about how the email sender, unbelievably, sent her a cease and desist letter). There’s a weird, deliberate (?) vagueness to the words that disguises the threat beneath: “They may have a Vaidya diagnose you and then put you in a separate mud hut. There you will see the Earth, the atmosphere, the outer space. You will be absorbed by your physical gender. Likely that is male.”

On the surface, and from the perspective of someone who hasn’t learned to detect hate from any place it might be coming from, these words might not look so threatening. Shraya brilliantly revisits them later in the story, after the book has been written and she and Lee are out promoting it. (The story is quite meta-narrative, actually; the book is conceptualized, created, and promoted within the narrative of the memoir). The same words from the first email are reprinted, with completely different art that clearly illustrates the threat:


As you can see in the text I’ve quoted above, the sender is also using South Asian words from various languages (Sanskrit for example) and concepts. He makes a direct connection to Shraya’s family afterwards: “Your mother wants to hear sweet words from you.” At this point, Shraya is really started to be affected by the words, even calling her parents to make sure the negative messages she is receiving from this stranger about being rejected by her family and culture are not true.

At the same time as she is describing the insidious emails she’s receiving, the art contrasts that hateful experience by showing her simply living the ordinariness of life: sleeping, eating breakfast, brushing her teeth, putting on some Ariana Grande, strumming on her guitar, teaching in her classroom. As a reader who isn’t a trans woman, you’re left with the profound, horrifying sense that transmisogynist hate is simply part of that regular life.


Vivek Shraya and Ness Lee, via


You also see how Shraya is by necessity forced to continue living her life; she even says “Initially, your letter amused me. I shared it with my friends.” She asks, “Doesn’t being trolled on the internet go hand in hand with being feminine?” But the words start to seep into her, into the rest of her life. Of course, as the artist that she is, she decides to make a comic book as a way to deal with the experience. That comic book, of course, is the very one that you’re holding in your hand.

I’ve always said that I have a hard time writing about visual art because I just don’t have so vocabulary or framework for discussing it. But here I go! Ness Lee’s artwork in this book really struck me with her surreal interpretations of the words; the bright, almost primary colours (I should nod to the colourists, Emmett Phan and Hieng Tang here); the bold dark blue lines outlining the shapes. One of my favourite, and heartbreaking, illustrations is of Shraya when she receives an encouraging and loving letter from her parents, and the tears of joy and gratitude spill over into a river:


Don’t miss this book! Like all comics, it’s a quick read, but its impact is still with me. I wonder what new and unique piece of art Vivek Shraya is going to make next?

Posted in Canadian, comics, Graphic, Non-Fiction, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 2 Comments

LGBTQ Community, Drag Culture, and Self-Acceptance in KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS by Tanya Boteju

If you’ve been looking for a queer YA book that is really invested in the idea of LGBTQ community, look no further than debut novel Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju. So often the contemporary stories we get about LGBTQ teens are about them being the only queer or trans person they know. I loved how awkward queer biracial teen Nima Kumara-Clark’s story is all about her finding community.

Nima has a lot going on: her mom took off unexpectedly about a year and a half ago, she’s in love with her straight BFF, and she’s bored and restless in her small community. This all changes the night when she randomly encounters a small drag show at a local fair. There she meets and befriends the person who becomes her drag mentor, Deirdre, and a young queer woman named Winnow that she’s immediately crushing on. From there, Nima moves towards — while also sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back — self-acceptance, confidence, and understanding.

I loved how Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens committed to depicting the intricacies of the drag world, the first blush of meeting other queer people you might be interested in, and exploring your place in the LGBTQ community. At times this YA about little awkward baby dyke Nima really brought me back to that period in my life, which for me was the first few years I was in university. There are very few books that I can say legitimately made me feel this way, which is pretty cool!

I also loved the supportive adults in Nima’s life: her white hippie dad who is dealing with his Sri Lankan wife leaving their family, the lesbian gardener family friend Jill, and drag mentor Deirdre. So many YA novels feature adults who are totally absent and/or completely incompetent. What a refreshing change! (The only other YA book I can think of that also features supportive, present parents is Mariko Tamaki’s Saving Montgomery Solereviewed here).


Tanya Boteju – image via

And here’s the but: the plot about Nima’s mom and the abandonment was unfortunately underdeveloped and insufficiently resolved. I get that not having everything answered and tied up in a neat little bow is realistic, but there were developments (spoiler alert: Nima’s mom comes back) that tried to develop the plotline and instead ended up muddling it more. I think it actually might have been more effective if her mom had just stayed away.

I also felt a bit troubled about the characterization of Deirdre. While I really appreciated that Nima had a queer adult mentoring her, the actual character of Deirdre felt confused. She’s constantly referred to as a drag queen but it’s also clear she presents as a woman all the time. It felt quite strange that she’s never referred to as a trans woman. I also thought she felt too much like a stereotypical performing Black drag queen rather than a real person; I don’t know, this is certainly not my area of expertise and I would love to hear the opinion of a queer and/or trans Black person on the representation!

Speaking of representation and unresolved plotlines, the character Gordon and accompanying story had some issues as well. Gordon is, to put it plainly, a homophobic bully to Nima, but also a former childhood friend and someone who appears to be struggling with a possible trans identity. When Nima becomes friends with Deirdre, she puts the two of them together to interesting results. However, this plot thread is again dropped without meaningful resolution by the time the novel ends.

One thing I’m wondering is if this book might have been better suited as a new adult story rather than a young adult one set in high school. Logistically it just didn’t make sense that an underage person would have regular access to the types of spaces—ie, bars—where the drag scene is focused. As I said, the time of my life that this novel reminded me of was my early twenties, my first few years of university, and initial coming out period. I think setting the book in a new adult context would have opened up some possibilities for investigating themes like distancing yourself from the “high school you” and making new relationships with the adults in your life now that you’re (kind of) an adult yourself.

Have you read Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens? What did you think? I’m honestly still sitting here wondering if the pros outweigh the cons. I think they do? Let me know your thoughts!

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, South Asian, Young Adult | 2 Comments

Art, Activism, Identity, and Spirituality in Samra Habib’s WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE: A QUEER MUSLIM MEMOIR

I am back from an unintended sabbatical from my blog to tell you about an amazing book that I read recently: We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib. Subtitled “A Queer Muslim Memoir,” this book was one of those ones I devoured in a few short days and then felt sad when it was done, cursing myself for reading it so quickly.

Samra Habib was a new name to me when the publisher sent me a copy of this book, but you might have heard of her photography project Just me and Allah, which features photos and short interviews with queer Muslims from around the world. You might have also read her journalism in places like The Advocate and The Guardian.

Habib’s memoir is part of a growing literary collection (fiction and non-fiction) from queer Muslim perspectives. (Two other Canadian examples I know are God in Pink by Hassan Namir and The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan; the first is a novel about a gay Iraqi guy that won the Lambda award for gay fiction that year and the second is a YA novel about a lesbian Bangladeshi-American teen which I reviewed in Quill & Quire!) This is a super exciting and welcome addition to the LGBTQ canon which is still very much in need of diverse perspectives, i.e. those that are not white cis men.

The memoir moves mostly chronologically through Habib’s life. She starts with her childhood as an Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan, where her family had to hide to stay safe in the face of Islamic extremists. I had heard of the differences and conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but the sect Habib and her family belonged to was brand new to me! While Habib doesn’t go into ton of detail (this is after all a book about her life, not an educational tome on the complexities of denominations of Islam), I found this dimension of the early chapters of the book fascinating and informative.

What I loved was how Habib showed how her upbringing of having to constantly hide and pretend to be other than she was in Pakistan is carried over to her life after her family comes to Canada as refugees. The pattern of keeping secrets and lying, combined with sexism and homophobia, continues in Toronto where she feels forced for years to hide her body, femininity, and queerness.


image via

In the chapters that take place in her high school years, where she is the most hidden, she writes:

“Azaad is a funny word in Urdu. In most instances, it means ‘freedom.’ But when used to describe a woman, it implies she is too wild to be tamed by those who have the right: her parents & all the men whose honour it is her duty to prioritize before her desires. It’s also used liberally to slut-shame & put down a woman who shows autonomy or independence.

One day I would wear the title of azaad like a badge of honour.”

Her road of exploration and self-discovery is long, and there are plenty of obstacles: an unwanted arranged marriage, racist bullying, her family living in poverty, and relationships with the wrong people. She slowly, very slowly, approaches a potentially queer sexuality and the concept that her body is not a problem to be solved but rather something she can enjoy. On a solo trip to Japan, she tries out telling a man at a gay men’s bar that she is queer. He suggests she go across the street to the lesbian bar. She ruminates:

“I wasn’t quite ready for the girl bar yet. I was still processing the fact that I’d just come out to a stranger. I hurried off, as though recovering from a fall I hoped nobody had witnessed.”

Along that journey from being afraid of going to the girl bar to spearheading her groundbreaking queer Muslim photography project are many beautiful thoughts about art, activism, and spirituality.

The most moving chapter for me was when she describes finding her people—other queer Muslims; it made me cry. She writes about visiting an explicitly LGBTQ centered prayer space:

“A black trans woman in her twenties got up from the floor to give a beautiful recitation of adhan, the call to prayer. I discreetly surveyed the room to see whether anyone else shared my emotional reaction to this powerful reclamation and profound queering of the traditional call to prayer. I tried to hold back my tears—for the first time I was witnessing a version of Islam I could be a part of.”

Habib writes mostly sparingly, like a journalist, with occasional flashes of figurative writing that are all the more impactful because of their rarity. The effect is an intensely readable book.

I think my only quibble with this memoir is I wanted a little bit more in terms of character. (I’m the kind of reader who is really big on character, so this probably bothers me more than it might others). A few people in Habib’s life, like her siblings, felt very opaque; it felt strange to be reading a story of someone’s life as a young person and forget entirely that they even had siblings. Other people, like her mother, emerge as complex and fully realized. Perhaps Habib intentionally didn’t write much about certain people for specific reasons, who knows. But I wanted more!

Don’t miss this beautiful book about finding yourself and your place in the world.

Note: a few content warnings: childhood sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, unwanted teenage arranged marriage.

Posted in Canadian, Lesbian, memoir, Queer, South Asian, Toronto | 1 Comment

A Ferocious, Devastating YA Thriller: A Review of SADIE by Courtney Summers

I had already finished reading YA thriller Sadie by Courtney Summers when I looked up the author and realized she was Canadian. I am thrilled to get a chance to think and write more about this book for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! I’m also excited to report that the book just won the 2019 Edgar Award (for mystery and thriller books) in the YA category. So very well deserved!

Sadie is an intense, heartbreaking book. It’s on the older end of the YA spectrum, and definitely a YA book that will hold appeal for adults as well. Sadie is a fascinating and gripping character. It’s the kind of novel that you’re left thinking about for a long time after you close the last page.

Sadie is a 19-year-old with nothing left to lose. She’s struggled for years to keep her and her younger sister Mattie’s heads afloat after their mom—who had drug abuse problems—left. She was doing her best to raise Mattie amidst poverty and very little support, even dropping out of school in order to be a better parent. When Mattie is found dead and her murder goes unsolved due to a lazy and botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to track down her younger sister’s killer. As I said, she has nothing left to lose. Mattie was her whole world. She doesn’t care if she makes it out of her investigation alive, she just wants answers … and revenge. As Sadie says:

“She’s dead,” I whisper and I don’t know why this is the thing I choose to say out loud because it hurts to say it, to feel the truth of those words pass my lips, to have them be real in this world. But She’s dead is the reason I’m still alive.

She’s dead is the reason I’m going to kill a man.

Sadie hits the road in her old car with only a few meager clues to follow up on. She connects with many people along the way: a cranky waitress at a truck stop diner, a fellow young woman who’s on the run whom Sadie picks up as a hitchhiker, some regular middle class high school kids whose lives are so unbelievably far from Sadie’s despite the fact that they’re the same age, and more.

You can’t help but feel for Sadie. Summers has done an excellent job in characterizing her—Sadie’s not an easy or a traditionally “likable” character (honestly, fuck that anyway) but she is so real, and so relatable. I especially liked how Sadie’s stutter was depicted—it’s there as something that Sadie has to deal with, that she knows affects people’s impressions of her, and that impacts her confidence and ability to talk with new people especially. But it doesn’t define her, and it doesn’t stop her from asking the hard questions she needs to while trying to find the answers she needs about what happened to Mattie.

My heart ached for Sadie, who is so starved for love and who has so much to give:

I tried not to think about that kind of stuff, because it was painful, because I thought I could ever have it, but when I did end up liking someone, it always made me ache right down to my core. I realized pretty early on that the who didn’t really matter so much. That anybody who listens to me, I end up loving them just a little.

I never know what to do with girls. Pretty girls. I want them to like me. It’s a strange, almost visceral *need* that settles itself inside and it makes me feel stupid and weak because I know it’s a fault line I can trace all the way back to my mother.But while the narrative follows Sadie on her journey to follow the clues to find the monster who murdered her sister, there is another story happening at the same time. The book alternates between Sadie’s story of going after the murderer and the transcript of a true crime Serial-esque podcast about Sadie and Mattie titled, aptly, “The Girls.” West McCray is a radio journalist who was working on a story about forgotten small-town America when he hears about Sadie’s story just by chance. This leads him to trace Sadie’s steps, trying to find Sadie before it’s too late to find her.

courtney summers

Courtney Summers / image via

On the surface, this is another story centred around a dead girl. One of the first lines in the podcast is: “And it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl.” But it’s also about the girl who still lives, who is fighting tooth and nail for the girl who died and for herself, and for all the girls. The book is also an examination of true crime podcasts that take the real life horror stories of actual people, often women and girls, and bleed them for entertainment.

All in all, Sadie is a riveting story, or rather a set of two stories that will keep you turning pages. It is excellently told in Summers’s restrained, pitch perfect writing. I need to say: this book need a strong content warning for childhood sexual abuse and pedophilia, although this is not included in a gratuitous or exploitative way. This is a ferocious, devastating book. It is bleak. But Sadie is a book worth reading. For the girls.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Fiction, mystery, Queer, Young Adult | 1 Comment

Sarcastic Sex Workers and Lesbian Frog Catchers in Emma Donoghue’s Historical Novel Frog Music

I remember going to a talk by Irish Canadian author Emma Donoghue years ago at the University of Western Ontario (or so it was called then) where she discussed researching and working on her 2014 novel, Frog Music. I recall her telling a story that went something like: “Someone told me there was a mistake in my Wikipedia page. It said that the latest novel Emma Donoghue is working on is historical fiction about a frog-catching lesbian. They said, that can’t possibly be true! Then they were aghast to discover, that, yes, that was indeed an accurate depiction.” Of course, this being a book about a frog-catching lesbian isn’t really the full story of Frog Music; it is but a fascinating piece of this odd, vibrant novel.

Frog Music is at once an intriguing character study, a murder mystery, and atmospheric historical fiction set in 1870s San Francisco that truly brings the period to life. It has content and themes ripped from the headlines like her most famous (not queer) novel Room, but this time the headlines are old: from 19th century American newspapers.

Did you know it was illegal for a woman to wear “men’s clothing” in 1800s San Francisco? And that they’d actually arrest you, throw you in jail for a while, and your so-called crime would be reported in the newspaper alongside other misdemeanors? Jenny Bonnet was one such real woman that Donoghue learned about in her research. But while Bonnet was known for her unrepentant cross-dressing, she ultimately become famous posthumously when she was the victim of an unsolved murder which took place in a room she was sharing with another woman on the outskirts of the city. Check out this interview for more info on Donoghue’s research.

The novel reimagines Jenny’s life and that of the woman who was with her at her death, Blanche Beunon. Lest you’re worried that the enigmatic woman Jenny will be absent from the novel because of her untimely death: Frog Music alternates between past and present, telling both the story of the two women’s meeting and developing friendship and that of Blanche trying to solve Jenny’s murder after her death. The structure makes for a thrilling story. I will say, however, that the protagonist is distinctly Blanche, rather than Jenny, as much as we get a lot of Jenny.

emma donoghue

Emma Donoghue / image via The Irish Times

There are a few things about this novel that I really liked. The first is how richly the historical setting is created. Donoghue’s San Francisco in the summer of 1876 feels like a character unto itself, one that you know with all your senses. You can feel the smoldering humid heat of the summer, hear the burlesque songs, taste the frog legs cooked in butter, and see Jenny flying down the cobbled street on her strange 19th bicycle (one of those ones with a giant front wheel and a tiny back one). Donoghue doesn’t sugarcoat the sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia of the times, but she also doesn’t let it define the characters the injustices are affecting or fetishize them. I don’t know how to describe it except the book feels utterly of a different time.

The second aspect of Frog Music I appreciated was how Blanche is made to be neither necessarily ‘likeable’ nor ‘good’. She’s a loving but ambivalent mother, a sex worker, a burlesque dancer, a woman who likes to have lots of sex, sarcastic, and more than occasionally bitchy. She has sometimes terrible taste in men, and is frustratingly unaware of how she’s being taken advantage of by the men in her life. She has no qualms, as a French immigrant, of declaring how superior the French and their ways of doing things are. I love how angry she gets when Americans mispronounce her last name, missing the nasal “n” sound.

My third favourite thing about Frog Music was how unusual the novel’s main relationship is. Blanche and Jenny first meet when Jenny literally runs into Blanche in the street while riding her bicycle. Blanche, true to her character, is pissed and lets Jenny know. It’s a strange start to a friendship, if you can call it that. The two women quickly become entangled in each other’s lives. Jenny is instrumental in getting Blanche to wake up and stand up for herself in her relationship with her “maque” aka live-in boyfriend of a sort Arthur. But it’s hard to say whether Blanche and Jenny really like each other. They’re nothing like two 21st century BFFs. At times they feel distinct disdain for one another. There’s also definite sexual attraction between them although they’re certainly never girlfriends. I thought this ambiguity of relationship type and label was just fascinating!

I listened to this novel as an audiobook and I also have to praise the voice acting performance! Khristine Hvam, the voice performer, does a marvelous job of capturing the various accents (notably, French and American), as well as taking on actually singing the variety of music that is included in the novel. It is called Frog Music after all. If you’re at all into that format, I definitely recommend listening to this book. I found the middle of the book sagged a bit in pacing, but the audiobook format carried me through.

This is the first historical novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue, but I’m sure it won’t be my last. Has anyone else read Frog Music, or any of her other historical books? Which other one should I dive into next?

Posted in Canadian, Emma Donoghue, Fiction, Lesbian, mystery, Queer, Sex Work | 7 Comments