Saturday, February 14, 2009

Queer Books We Heart

Encountering a queer book can be exciting, challenging, inspiring – even erotic. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I asked several writers to describe a queer book that has influenced them the most.

A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White
I read this novel as a teenager and discovered in White's beautifully rich prose an articulation of feelings I myself was struggling to understand. Speaking to other gay men and reading about people’s relationship to this book I’ve found that many have experienced the same thing reading this brilliant novel. It’s startling that a story so specific and entwined in it’s particular time and location can touch upon such universal feelings, taking on personal meaning to so many. It also felt brave and honest that the great betrayal at the end of the book doesn’t conform to a facile love story, but hints at impulses inherent to queer identity which have the power to divide us as much as bring us together. - Eric Karl Anderson, author of Enough

Venus and Adonis by Shakespeare
chosen by David Plante, author of The Francoeur Trilogy, The Catholic and Difficult Women.

I was somewhere between the ages of ten to twelve, just before puberty. I had a fever and for some reason was in my parents' bed (the bed I was conceived in and where I was born.) Pretentious as I was, and have always been, I thought I must read Shakespeare to be truly cultured. The complete words were bound in soft red leather. I started with the long poem Venus and Adonis. When I came to the description, seen from the point of view of Venus, of Adonis' body, something stirred in my soul-- a soul, I hasten to write, in direct contact with my body, so much so that the stirring in my soul stirred by blood,and an erection rose up in my slightly sweaty pajamas. And I recall from this moment of great psychological complexity came a simple sexual impulse that has given me, and gives me, a very great pleasure in my life.

Love Medicine and One Song by Greg Scofield
chosen by Sophie Mayer, a writer, editor and educator.

Because when I heard him read poems from this collection on CBC, as part of "Beneath the Buffalo Robe," a documentary/discussion about decolonising Indigenous sexuality, my knees melted like spring thaw. This book is a talisman for me, for its many beauties, but also because it's the frankest, clearest, most delicate and strong, most committed, most alive and most complex literary representation of bisexuality that I've ever read. And in its honest, sexy, lyrical embrace, it freed me to become something more and braver as a lover, a poet and a person.

Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, by Paul Monette
and “Used to Dream,” by C. Bard Cole
chosen by Philip Huang, author of American Widow and YouTube contributor.

After reading Borrowed Time at 19, I came out, became a writer, and joined the AIDS movement. This is the book I mean when I talk to young gay men about their inheritance.

OK, “Used to Dream” is not a book, but in thirteen pages, this short story left me raw as a swallow of bleach. The only other piece of short fiction that comes close in impact is Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” but Bard’s work here is filthier, scarier, and more lovely. Maybe if we beg Bard at he’ll publish “Used to Dream” online. The story can also be found in Cole’s collection Briefly Told Lives.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
chosen by Riki Wilchins, author of Read My Lips, GenderQueer and Gender Theory.

The main influence on my thinking, particularly about gender, has to be Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1995). In just the first, blazing 10 pages, she undermines most of the assumptions under which feminist theory had operated for the last two decades, and rewrites the tools by which we think about bodies, gender and sexuality. It's a bravura performance, almost rude in its relentless intelligence and willingness to undo old, established ways of thinking. Gender Trouble not only achieved the long-sought theoretical bridge between feminist and gay theory, but did so by undermining the very ideas of Woman and Homosexuality. It is, in a word, cheeky. Although the middle section strikes me as incredibly obscure pomo-babble, the beginning and ending chapters are undeniably brilliant. Perhaps even more than E. K. Sedgwick, Butler is responsible for the rise and prominence of queer theory. Her work was a giant leap forward, which no one since has replicated. I have not only drawn her ideas in Gender Trouble for all three of my books - without having drawn the well of ideas dry, or even drained it significantly – but I continually return to it for new inspiration. And every time I open it, I find something new again.

Of Drag Kings and the Wheel of Fate by Susan Smith
chosen by JD Glass, author of Lambda Literary Finalist Punk Like Me, Punk and Zen, Lambda Literary and Ben Franklin Finalist Red Light, American Goth and the newly published X.

“We all dress up as something. The queers just put more thought into it.”

I first discovered this book on-line and have picked it up through two published editions. From the very beginning, it’s filled with raw, naked poetry flirting as prose, limned and fleshed in primal, visceral honesty… It was that honesty about love and Light, of sense of self and purpose, written with an unabashed admiration and respect for life itself, the glories and discomforts, the deeper truths of what it means to be human—not regardless of physicality but because of it and its inherent fluidity—it shocked me, stunned me, grabbed my heart and head and showed me that this was a Writer writing about Life, about real emotion and sex and heart no matter how fictional the story might be.

Here, for the first time ever, I saw faces I recognized, reflections of friends, of self, of community, and the deep deep Truths inherent in being alive and in being queer.

This book moved me, moved me to bravery, to reveal Truth in my own way, to add my voice to the chorus.

A path, a way I’d never seen before, had been opened before me, a way to a world of potential and possibility, filled with characters made of words that could just possibly be flesh, could be me or you, or that person on the corner, hanging about the coffee shop in Buffalo, NY.

I dress up as an artist—and when I wear my writer clothes, it is because of Susan Smith.

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
chosen by Aaron Hamburger, author of The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners

In the mid-nineties, I moved from Michigan to Prague and read a lot of Proust. Before leaving home, I’d thought it would be easier to pack one really big book than lots of short ones.

In a few months, I’d made my way through the first three books of Remembrance of Things Past, and my prose style had gone from clipped Hemingway-esque sketches to long, winding reflections that went on for paragraphs and sometimes pages. My pen and mind needed a break.

Fortunately, my roommate lent me a book called The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, the perfect corrective to Proust’s imperial, longwinded brilliance.

The first thing that struck me about Berlin Stories was the mirror image of its subject matter in relation to my life. While Isherwood was a semi openly gay writer living abroad, teaching English in a Central European country transitioning from freedom to totalitarianism, I was a semi openly gay writer abroad teaching English in a Central European country moving in the reverse political direction.

A couple of years later, as a fully openly gay grad student in New York, I reread Berlin Stories and came to appreciate the virtues of Isherwood’s literary aesthetic. I particularly loved the disjunction between Isherwood’s clear, frank prose and his sparing divulgence of detail. Berlin Stories is told in fragments, with characters who disappear in one story and then pop up in another, or characters who form mysterious and strong emotional bonds, seemingly for no reason. My writing professor explained that these narrative gaps were caused by the constraints on open discussion of homosexuality at the time when Isherwood published his stories in England, in the mid-thirties. However, as a contemporary reader, I enjoyed the stylistic effect of a narrative that pulled readers in by forcing them to do some of the work themselves to create the stories they were reading. As I sat down to write my own stories of ex-pat life, The View from Stalin’s Head, I used Isherwood as a model, drawing a picture of a time and place through carefully selected fragments, which I hoped might tempt readers to play detective and take the time to put together.

In many ways, Isherwood’s narrative gaps are a fitting stylistic response to the lives of queer people, who almost daily have to decide what to reveal about themselves to new friends, co-workers, even strangers. And just like Isherwood’s readers, queer people also examine people for clues to see what’s under the surface, how what’s not being said may be a result of purposeful ambiguity that goes unnoticed by some audiences while speaking loud and clear to others. As queer life goes mainstream, it’s possible the need for this Isherwood strategy of evasion will lessen or even vanish. In which case, much will be gained, but what will be lost?

The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
chosen by Jackie Kay, author of Trumpet, Wish I Was Here, The Adoption Papers and Why Don't You Stop Talking: Stories.
Audre Lorde's wonderful poetry collection, The Black Unicorn, was a huge influence. It was so exciting to come across a black lesbian, who embraced all of her own complexities, who looked back to the past, and the women of Dahomey to give her confidence, and forward to the future. I'd never heard a voice like Audre's before and she blew me away. Other early books I loved were Patience and Sarah and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. If reading is a kind of a mirror, these books told me I was not alone.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and Rent Girl by Michelle Tea
chosen by Aundi Howerton

The question has been posed at to what queer texts have had the greatest influence: enter a barrage of titles. In order to narrow down the options, I’ve decided to restrict my focus to living writers, who are both specific to my geographical region and who, I feel, have produced the greatest impact on the female-bodied sector of the queer community.

I’ve selected two titles, although the influence assigned them both are more representative of their respective authors’ complete oeuvre than possibly that of the titles as independent works. The two also stand in distinct contrast to one another on a variety of spectrums, specifically those of genre, style, and audience; ultimately though, they achieve an incredibly similar goal.

The first is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. This text was ground-breaking for queer theorists, cracking open a centuries-old yet under-developed gender consciousness and endowing it with academic relevance. At the level of the academic blueprint, the female body was offered, with this text, passport from the oppression of its patriarchal residence; and individual gender identity was infused with vibrant creativity and endless possibilities for diversification. Butler’s work marked the mitotic division of the individual’s gender axis of identity from that of the sexuality axis articulated by Foucault years earlier. Human conceptualization of self thus grew exponentially.

Across the tracks from Butler’s academia, in San Francisco’s queer punk underground, Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl offered stores of alternatives for subverting capitalism, complete with honest and sometimes painful consequences. In doing so, the graphic memoir has acted as a repossession of the female body as commodity, from as far back as its original co-opting in literature by male Realists of the 18th Century. History might look to bury Michelle Tea with the rest of the underground; the works are unlikely to feel the tug of the canon, but from them, an entire sub-genre gestates. Additionally, it would be hard to number the throngs of young, queer self-described “non-readers,” who’ve stumbled into Michelle Tea’s work, had their various personal existences justified and become, as a result, “readers.” And that’s remarkable.

Is there a queer book you heart? Please leave a comment showing your love.



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