DECEMBER 22, 2019
THIS NOVEMBER, the PDX Book Festival took place in Portland, Oregon. The annual one-day event always includes some of the best contemporary writers, and many of the best contemporary writers are queer. (We are good artists.) This year, the festival included over 100 authors participating in events across nine stages. It was crowded, and many of the popular panels and readings were at capacity, including those involving LGBTQIA+ writers. The queer writers at this year’s festival spanned multiple genres, from nonfiction to fiction, poetry to graphic literature.
One of the best panels I attended was called “Reckoning: Memoir of Trauma and Resilience,” featuring queer authors Saeed Jones (How We Fight for Our Lives) and T Kira Madden (Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls), as well as Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Shout) and moderator Michele Filgate (editor of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About). After the three panelists read excerpts from their dazzling memoirs (all of which were released this year), Filgate facilitated a captivating discussion about art, the body, survival, and claiming power. Claiming power is a subversive act for anyone who has experienced trauma connected to white supremacist cis-hetero patriarchy — rape, racism, oppression based on identity markers like race, gender, sexuality.
All of this got me thinking about the power inherent in telling stories, and telling queer stories. One of the most powerful ways we learn how to become ourselves is the context in which we live, including the stories we’re exposed to. I asked many of the LGBTQIA+-identified writers to suggest a book by a queer author, and they graciously offered so many great recommendations. See below for a fantastic queer reading list that will keep you reading for a good long while.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of the short story collection Black Light (Vintage, 2019). Her stories have appeared in Paris Review, Black Warrior Review, and No Tokens, among other places. Black Light is a gorgeous collection that centers on people who find themselves in the margins of something, shining a light of their own making.
“I can’t pick just one book, so here are two favorites from 2019: if you haven’t read Trump Sky Alpha by the bizarre and brilliant Mark Doten, you can guess from the title that Trump features prominently (Doten is disturbingly adept at mimicking the speech patterns and odd declarations of You Know Who as he plunges the world into nuclear war), but what you might not know is that the novel hinges on the discoveries of a badass lesbian reporter named Rachel. She’s deep in grief at the macro and micro level — both for the disastrous state of things and for the deaths of her wife and daughter — and her keen observations come in a cool, detached, Didionic tone. She’s smart and broken, and her voice is absolutely unshakable. I loved every twisted moment of this book.
A Year Without a Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham was recommended to me by the tremendous writer T Kira Madden, who called it “outrageously good.” I trust T Kira’s literary opinion implicitly, and I devoured this gorgeous memoir in a single sitting. I was sobbing as I reached the spectacular ending (historically, the only place I cry is alone in my car in the driveway, so believe me when I say this book is Something Special). Dunham’s genderqueer coming-of-age story is breathtakingly intimate and honest — ideal for anyone who has ever felt around in the dark to find themselves again and again and again (i.e., every damn one of us).”
Kristen Arnett is the author of the novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019), and of the short story collection Felt in the Jaw (Split Lip Press, 2017). Her work appears in LitHub, Buzzfeed, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Catapult, and Ploughshares, among others. Mostly Dead Things is about a lesbian taxidermist and her family, grief, longing, art, blood, and guts. It’s funny, devastating, and really gay.
“A book I’d recommend (and continue to recommend to everyone I meet) is Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. It’s a book about what it’s like to grow up queer, sure, but it’s also a book about art — specifically about music — and what it means to inhabit a body. From the opening page, you can feel the lyricism of Chee’s sentences. It’s compellingly written, extremely satisfying, and made me ache in the way only beautiful writing can. It’s a book I turn to, over and over again, when I am trying to think of what it’s like to write a queer lived experience. Not the coming-out story, but the whole lived life — the daily lived minutes of being queer. It’s gorgeous work (and continues to make me cry every time I read it).”
Gabby Rivera is the author of the best-selling novel Juliet Takes a Breath (Dial Books, 2019) and Marvel’s first lesbian Latina superhero, America Chavez. Juliet Takes a Breath is about a young queer Puerto Rican college student from the Bronx who spends a summer interning with a white feminist writer in Portland, learning about herself and what it means to make community with sexually, gender, and racially diverse humans. She also kisses a cute librarian.
“The LGBTQ book I’d recommend is Junauda Petrus’s The Stars and the Blackness Between Them. It is the most gorgeous, profound, spiritually uplifting, Afrofuturistic, ancestral love YA novel we’ve ever been blessed with. It’s an oracle. An astrological offering to queer Black love forever and ever.”
Saeed Jones is the author most recently of the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2019), as well as the poetry collection Prelude to a Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014). How We Fight for Our Lives is a memoir of Jones’s relationship with his late mother, growing up a queer Black kid in Texas, sex, identity, family, and grief. It is proof that poets write incredible memoirs.
“My recommendation is Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia And Its Consequences by Sarah Schulman. It helped me point to painful silences I’d been enduring for years but had been unable to contextualize. It’s a vital book for queer people and the people who purport to love us.”
Jericho Brown is the author most recently of the poetry collection The Tradition (Copper Canyon, 2019), a 2019 National Book Award finalist, as well as Please (New Issues, 2008) and The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), which won the American Book Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, respectively. The Tradition explores terror and beauty as it is felt in the body, and sparkles with innovation both in imagery and form. In fact, Brown invented a new form of poetry: the duplex, a blend of sonnet, ghazal, and blues poetry. The Tradition also has, as Brown himself says, the most beautiful cover of any poetry book ever.
“There are many poets I love. Everyone knows I have a huge love for Essex Hemphill, I have a great big love for Audre Lorde. But the queer poet who’s living today that I’ve been most interested in recently — possibly because of my newfound interest in form and subverting forms in different ways — is the poet Randall Mann. I really think everyone should check out his work because the poems are so contemporary, they’re about what’s really happening around us today, but they’re always elegant. There’s something about his elegance, his sense of decorum, that I find really exciting. He’s also very cute.”
Jake Skeets is the author of the National Poetry Series–winning poetry collection Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019). He is Diné from Vanderwagen, New Mexico, and holds an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He won the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review poetry contest and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work appears in the Boston Review, The Rumpus, Waxwing, Apogee Journal, and 92Y, among others. Eyes Bottle Dark crackles with the syntax of language and landscape, love and violence. It’s a stunning collection, alive and pulsing.
“The book I want to recommend is Language Arts by Cedar Sigo. I first came across Language Arts after Sherwin Bitsui put the book on my required reading for my MFA. I learned so much about language through the book. I feel like queer Native and queer Indigenous poetics can and do change our minds about the world.”
Mira Jacob is the author most recently of the graphic memoir Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (One World, 2019), and the novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, 2014). Good Talk begins with Jacob fielding increasingly difficult questions from her six-year-old son as tensions ramp up around the 2016 election. It broadens into a funny, moving, acute, and brilliant memoir of identity, from interracial marriage to sexuality to immigrant experience to what it means to love and be loved in a white supremacist society. The print version has incredible line drawings and collage, and if you’re wondering whether a graphic book could ever work in audio format, this one proves that yes, it can not only be good, but downright fantastic.
“My fall has been firmly held in place by two books of poetry by a couple, so I am going to recommend both with the hope that someone else will have the joy of reading these two side by side, and like, digging a universe in which they found each other. I picked up Angel Nafis’s BlackGirl Mansion (Red Beard Press/ New School Poetics, 2012) after I came across her poem “Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country” online. There’s so much to pull out and admire in here, but what I love the most is the way her poems read like songs I should have known my whole life. You know when that happens with a single poem? It happens a lot in here. This book will show you how to live, if you let it. Similarly, when I picked up Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium (Alice James Books, 2019), I felt like I had been waiting for it for a long time. My family struggles with bipolar disorder, so finding this gracious, soaring collection was a godsend. I even laughed out loud a few times — a laugh of recognition, of feeling less alone, which is really the most you can ask of any book.”
T Kira Madden’s debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls (Bloomsbury, 2019), was released in March to great acclaim, and for good reason: her prose is electric. She is the founding editor-in-chief of No Tokens journal, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, facilitates programs for homeless and formerly incarcerated people, and her work has appeared in Guernica, Harper’s, Buzzfeed, LitHub, and PEN America among others. Long Live the Tribe is about family secrets, searching for self, queer adolescence, complicated love, pain, resilience, and joy — you know, all the things that really good memoirs are made of.
“Heather Lewis’s House Rules (Nan A. Talese, 1994) — and her whole trilogy, which includes The Second Suspect and Notice — is blood, guts, and heart in equal measure. She is the writer who taught me — who still teaches me — that excessiveness on the page should be celebrated, that stories needn’t be hushed or quieted to be taken seriously, that a novel about fisting and sex work and horses and abuse can be the highest literature of all. Her sentences bend light.”