Why We Need Queer Novels And Memoirs Now More Than Ever

We can look to queer novels and memoir as a way of exploring how writing can help all of us move forward in more authentic, transgressive ways.

As those of us in the U.S. move uneasily forward into a future under the administration of Donald Trump, so many of the folks I know in social justice circles are working on artistic strategies for enduring the four years of draconian conservative politics to come. One of the most powerful models of survival for marginalized communities focuses on subverting oppressive, discriminatory institutions and individuals – and this model already exists in the literary genres of queer novels and memoir.

I’ve read some tremendous work this year featuring fictional and nonfictional narrators who navigated issues of race, class, disability, and gender, and still found ways to flourish as individuals under difficult circumstances. They were able to form profound connections with others to create stronger friendships and families of their own making. We can look to queer novels and memoir as a way of exploring how writing can help all of us move forward in more authentic, transgressive ways against the dominant political paradigm.

Here are five of the books that might get you inspired to think about your own unconventional means of both surviving and thriving in the Trump years:

  1. Black Wave by Michelle Tea recreates San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late 1990s, as Tea masterfully manipulates the boundaries between what’s “real,” what’s “fiction,” and even what possibilities for the future are created in dreamscapes. It’s a novel about having sex and not having sex, taking drugs and not taking drugs, seeking company in the form of (imaginary?) sex with Matt Dillon while feeling terrible isolation in a more intimate relationship with her partner. Tea fully embraces the messiness of her narrative contradictions and insists that a world in which we’re all reading and supporting queer lit is the only way to stave off the impending apocalypse. At the end of the world, she’s typing away – and that sense of optimism against earth-shattering odds will likely make readers want to get out there and fill the world with their art, too.
  1. Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes in lyrical detail the experiences of her formative years as an adult runaway, incest survivor, writer, and activist working in community with disability, queer, and POC- centered social justice movements. Throughout the book, we also find inspiration in Piepzna-Samarasinha’s citations of June Jordan and Audre Lorde. Dirty River is ultimately a thoughtfully annotated roadmap to help those whose bodies and identities meet at multiple intersections find their own way.
  1. Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity by Alexis Pauline Gumbs mixes genres such as interviews, poetry, and essays to document the often untold history of black queer women in the U.S. Spill offers the kind of meditative history that lends itself to underlining passages, lines, entire pages. The skillful blend of academic theory and personal introspection results in a luxuriously blended narrative that proves essential to honoring the legacies of queer black women.
  1. Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement edited by Jennifer Patterson is an anthology as diverse and rich as its body of queer, non-binary, and gender-fluid contributors opening up about the experiences of both surviving abuse and embracing the complexities of sexual violence on their own terms. Standouts include Sinclair Sexsmith’s “Sweet Release: BDSM and Healing,” Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s “All That Sheltering Emptiness,” and Sassafras Lowrey’s “Not a Good Survivor.”
  1. I’ll Tell You in Person: Essays by Chloe Caldwell is a book I’ve reread over and over again for the sheer love of her writing. Her seemingly effortless, natural style depicts the complexities of female friendship, the mother-daughter relationship, and other coming-of-age misadventures. In one of the book’s strongest essays, “The Laziest Coming Out Story You’ve Ever Heard,” Caldwell shows the full scope of her vulnerability as she finds herself uncertain about the constriction of identity labels by referring to herself as bisexual, resists the straight-washing of her friends who think Caldwell’s interest in women isn’t genuine, and ultimately ends the essay with no definitive answers on who she is – beyond a person with her own complex sexual identity. It’s Caldwell’s unabashed insistence on exploring queerness on her own terms that might inspire others on their own coming-out journeys.

Allison McCarthy is a writer with a focus on personal essays, intersectional feminism, and social justice. Her work has been featured in print and online publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian (U.K.), AlterNet, The Establishment, Vox, Time.com, xoJane, DAME, Autostraddle, Ravishly, The Frisky, Medium.com (“Human Parts” series), Bitch,make/shift, Ms. (blog), Girlistic, YourTango, Hip Mama, Bustle, Global Comment, Role/Reboot, Shameless, The Feminist Wire, ColorsNW, The Baltimore Review, and Hoax, as well as in several anthologies. A graduate of Goucher College and the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University, she currently lives in Maryland. 

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