Red + Orange (and some pink for good measure):
- Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor — This novel, written by trans author Andrea Lawlor, is a gender-bending ’90s romp that is sure to inspire joy and laughter, sweat and tears. First published in 2017 by Rescue Press, it had its rerelease in May from Vintage.
- Mamaskatch by Darrel J. McLeod — This memoir by gay Indigenous writer Darrel J. McLeod, is being released as a reprint from Milkweed Editions on June 11. It centers on McLeod’s childhood in the unceded territory of northern Alberta in a Cree family, specifically his relationship with his mother and his mother’s own traumatic history.
- War/Torn by Hasan Namir — Iraqi-Canadian writer Hasan Namir won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction for his debut novel, God in Pink, in 2016. In his debut poetry collection, out this month from Book*hug, Namir explores masculinity, religion, violence, and sexuality from a gay Muslim perspective.
- When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan — This 2019 nonfiction deep dive into the forgotten or overlooked queer history of Brooklyn was released to rave reviews earlier this year. Hugh Ryan is a prolific writer and queer historian, and here he illustrates Brooklyn’s culture of gender and sexual fluidity from the 1850s onward, a story often erased in favor of highlighting other historically queer New York City neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem.
- Written on the Body and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson — Now for some lesbian canon. If you’ve been meaning to read Jeanette Winterson but just haven’t gotten to it yet, start with these two. Winterson is a master of sentence structure, wit, weirdness, and gut-punching narratives.
- When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Cullors — This 2018 memoir from Black Lives Matter co-founder Cullors goes way beyond a simple chronicle of that founding process. She writes a completely engrossing story of her family, community, and her own Black queer identity. Cullors embodies queerness in this writing — radical love and acceptance, chosen family, truly embracing diversity of identity and experience. This book isn’t marketed as queer, but it is.
- Amateur by Thomas Page McBee — Another 2018 memoir, this examination of masculinity and violence from writer Thomas Page McBee is utterly readable. McBee uses the sport of boxing as an entry point to seek answers to the question, “Why do men fight?” Along the way, he interviews sociologists, trains for a boxing match himself, and writes about his relationships to the important people in his life, especially his late mother, all in pursuit of a greater understanding of masculinity.
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee — If you somehow missed this in 2018, do yourself a favor and read it now. Chee is a fantastic writer, and in this memoir-in-essays, he delves into everything from Korean-American identity, gay life during the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, the word “girl,” and growing a rose garden. See also: his 2001 debut novel Edinburgh.
- Abandon Me by Melissa Febos — Melissa Febos is one of those writers whose work will transform you. In this 2017 essay collection/memoir, the titular essay (which occupies most of the book) is a sweeping account of an obsessive relationship, of multicultural identity, of love and drive and abandonment. It’s a feat of the written word.
- Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote — Ivan Coyote is a prolific award-winning trans/nonbinary writer. In this memoir/autobiography from Arsenal Pulp Press, which won the 2017 Stonewall Book Award, they recount their childhood and young adulthood growing up as a self-identified tomboy in Canada’s Yukon, navigating and ultimately defining gender for themselves.
- Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn — Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 2017, among a slew of other accolades, and for good reason. Jamaican-born Dennis-Benn tells sweeping stories of complicated characters, and in her highly anticipated second novel, Patsy, a mother and daughter, both queer, live separate, parallel lives in Kingston, Jamaica, and New York. The book explores themes of immigration, mental health, family, gender and sexuality, and what it means to love and be loved for the flawed characters who jump off the page. It’s out on June 4.
- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde — Definitely one for the required reading category, late activist and intersectional queer icon Audre Lorde’s biomythography centers on her childhood, her Black lesbian experience, and her deep connection to her mother.
- The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie — This 2012 novel from Black Girl Dangerous Press tells the story of a young Black artist whose family is ostracized from their church, and the lesbian awakening she experiences in the aftermath. McKenzie describes herself as “a black feminist and a freaking queer”; she’s also a talented writer.
- The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich — Marzano-Lesnevich is a trans/nonbinary writer and professor, and their hybrid memoir/true crime story is one of the most unsettling and compelling things you might ever read. It questions humanity and morality, examines trauma and resilience, and is masterfully written.
- Not Vanishing by Chrystos — This 1988 poetry collection from two-spirit Menominee poet and activist Chrystos also belongs in the queer canon. Writing on loving women, self-esteem, Indigenous heritage, and class, among other themes, this is a dazzling collection.
- The Bone People by Keri Hulme — We all know asexual representation is hard to find outside of YA genre fiction, but this magical realism novel, the only one from Keri Hulme, hits the mark. Hulme is of Maori and European heritage, as is the protagonist of this story set in a tower off the coast of New Zealand. The Bone People won the Booker Prize in 1985.
Yellow + Green:
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid — This 2018 novel features a protagonist who is already a bisexual literary icon; it’s also just a really fun story.
- Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta — Okparanta is an award-winning Nigerian-American writer whose work centers queer women in Nigeria. Her 2015 debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, was a big hit (and one of my favorite reads that year), but this 2013 debut short story collection should not be overlooked. It won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.
- Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha — This 2015 memoir from poet and queer disability justice activist Piepzna-Samarasinha tells the story of her childhood, during which she endured abuse from her mother; grappling with racism and ableism while celebrating her Sri Lankan heritage; and her young adulthood in which she worked hard to build a chosen family and community that embodies the values of social justice and love. Published by indie favorite Arsenal Pulp Press, Dirty River was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and the Publishing Triangle Award. Also highly recommended are Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poetry collection Bodymap, and her newest book, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice.
- Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway — This 2018 poetry collection (from Canadian indie publisher Book*hug) by Indigenous trans writer Gwen Benaway explores trans indigenous body as a site of resistance, love, grief, and agency.
- Pretend We Live Here by Genevieve Hudson — In her debut story collection from Future Tense Books (2018), Hudson writes vividly about queer characters mainly in the South, weaving lush landscapes, strange circumstances, and utterly lovable characters.
- We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby — Irby is a Black queer woman whose writing crackles with humor and deep truths. This 2017 memoir-in-essays is no exception.
- Madwomen by Gabriela Mistral — Chilean poet and essayist Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945). This collection includes some of her first poems translated into English. Mistral was a fascinating figure who is widely regarded as queer because of her intimate relationships with women; here she writes on the theme of “madness” in women.
- The Way of Thorn and Thunder: The Kynship Chronicles by Daniel Heath Justice — Justice is an Indigenous two-spirit writer and a member of the Cherokee Nation, living in Canada. This fantasy trilogy is set in a world that mimics 18th-century North America and is at once parable and engrossing story of colonialism, gender, and epic world-building. It’s out from University of New Mexico Press (2011).
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — This tight little 2018 novel, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, features an asexual protagonist and was a mainstream hit when it was released. That is so rare! It’s also a fun yet moving read.
- So Lucky by Nicola Griffith — Griffith is perhaps best known for her fantasy novel Hild, but in this semi-autobiographical novel, the only magical realist element is an allegory for mental illness — a monster that exists but doesn’t exist. It tells the story of Mara and her first year living with an MS diagnosis, in which she also loses her longtime partner and her job. Dealing with disability, mental illness, physical illness, and communities of support that may or may not overlap, this is a short but gripping read.
Blue + Violet:
- Disoriental by Négar Djavadi — This 2018 debut novel from Iranian-French writer Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina Kover, is about a bisexual/queer woman whose close familial drama intertwines with the cultural and political history of Iran as she navigates her punk ethos and inherited tradition. It is published by Europa Editions.
- La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono — The first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English (courtesy of Lawrence Schimel), this Lambda Literary Award nominee tells the story of a teenage lesbian living with her grandmother who, with the help of her gay uncle and other queer outcasts, attempts to find her father. Published by indie press superstar Feminist Press (2018).
- Passing Strange by Ellen Klages — Another fantasy/historical fiction entry, this 2017 novel from Tor takes place in an alternate 1940s San Francisco and centers six (!) queer women; it’s fast-paced and fun, and easily accessible to folks who aren’t usually fantasy readers.
- Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson — Like Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body, this is a lyrical true crime/memoir hybrid. Here, queer writer icon Maggie Nelson uncovers the story of her aunt Jane, who was murdered, and what results is truly gripping. It’s out from Soft Skull Press (2005, 2016).
- Mean by Myriam Gurba — A memoir of a queer mixed-race Chicana told in lyrical prose, this Lambda Literary Award nominee is incisive, raw, funny, and poetic. Published by Coffee House Press (2017).
- The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch — This 2011 pillar of non-traditional memoir canon is frequently used as an example of just how creative someone can be when telling their story. In it, powerhouse writer Lidia Yuknavitch writes of extreme grief, swimming, art, motherhood, gender and sexuality, violence, and ultimately survival.
- Little Fish by Casey Plett — Another Arsenal Pulp Press title, this multigenerational family drama tells the story of a trans woman named Wendy who discovers that her late Mennonite grandfather may also have been trans. It takes place in Winnipeg, and involves farming. What more could one need?
- Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn — This 2015 memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail could be described as a queerer version of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, but that would be reductive. Carrot Quinn brings her own unique perspective to this journey-on-your-own-two-feet narrative, away from the internet and into the surprising ways in which wilderness and solitude lead to deeper connection with the self and others.
- Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg — This essential semi-autobiographical novel has, unforgivably, been out of print for decades, but it can be found in libraries and used bookstores, and someone in your queer community probably has a well-worn copy. Feinberg was revolutionary in their writing about gender identity, and this story continues to be as vital as ever.
- An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon — This 2017 fantasy/sci-fi novel made mainstream waves when it was released. It was written by Black trans/nonbinary author Rivers Solomon, whose characters represent a plethora of identities, including an asexual protagonist.
Black + Brown:
- White Girls by Hilton Als — Als is a Black queer contemporary essayist and cultural critic, and in this 2013 collection from McSweeney’s, he brings his brilliant insight and sharp writing to topics from art, literature, and music to gender and race.
- Bestiary by Donika Kelly — Donika Kelley is a queer Black poet whose work is truly transcendent. In Bestiary (Graywolf, 2016), she explores the animal in the human, the human in the mythical creature, and creates an ark of memory and the corporeal.
- Rise of the Rain Queen by Fiona Zedde — A 2016 speculative fiction romance from Jamaican-American writer Zedde tells the story of Nyandoro, her privileged childhood with her loving family, a major tragedy, political power dynamics, and lesbian erotica.
- We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Leighton Brown and Matthew Riemer — Probably the best coffee-table book ever created, the folks behind @lgbt_history recently released this physical volume of photographs, art, interviews, and historical text about LGBTQIA+ civil rights history.
- The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker — We all know that The Color Purple is one of the greatest queer books of all time, but let’s not forget about Walker’s follow-up novel, a loose sequel featuring Celie and Shug as matriarchal figures presiding over the stories of new characters Lissie, Arveyda, Suwelo, and Fanny.
- A Certain Loneliness by Sandra Gail Lambert — This unsung 2018 memoir from University of Nebraska Press tells the story of Lambert’s childhood bout with polio that left her in a wheelchair, and explores both the beauty and pain of loneliness and solitude, as well as queer female desire.
- Native Country of the Heart by Cherríe Moraga — Chicanx lesbian writer Moraga is well known for her prolific writing and activism, including her role as co-editor of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color with Gloria Anzaldúa. This 2019 memoir of both her own life and her mother’s is a powerful meditation on mothers and daughters, aging, grief, and female power.
- How We Get Free edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor — A reflection on the legacy of the Combahee River Collective from founding members and contemporary activist-writers, this 2017 anthology brings together some of the most important voices of radical intersectional Black queer feminism.
- Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry — Imani Perry did the world a huge favor by devoting her time, passion, and narrative synthesis skills to breathe new life into the life story of playwright and social justice activist Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry’s queer ethos shines through in this 2018 biography. Not to mention, her circle of friends and/or lovers included such icons as Molly Malone Cook, James Baldwin, and Nina Simone.
- When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen — A total thrill of a debut poetry collection, gay Chinese-American poet Chen crafts a perfect balance of heartbreak and laugh-out-loud humor with pitch-perfect cadence and rhythm. Published by BOA Editions (2017).
- Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith — Smith is a Black nonbinary poet whose performance chops are mesmerizing, but the power of their words comes across on the printed page too. This 2017 collection from Graywolf examines themes of gender, sexuality, and race, as well as joy, family, and language.
- Her by Cherry Muhanji — Originally published in 1990, this historical fiction novel from Cherry Muhanji (a.k.a. Janette Washington) tells the story of the relationships between members of a community of Black women in 1950s Detroit who worked in the Ford Motor Plant. It won the Lambda Literary Award in 1991.
- Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead — Another Arsenal Pulp Press (2018) title, this novel from Indigenous (Oji-Cree) two-spirit writer, poet, and academic Whitehead centers on Jonny, a two-spirit “Indigiqueer” character who is on his way back to the reservation for his stepfather’s funeral. Themes of family, sex and relationships, ambition, and love are written with humor and tenderness.
A Rainbow unto Themselves:
- Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden — To say that Madden’s 2019 debut memoir is about growing up an APIA queer girl/young woman in Boca Raton, Florida, is true, but too reductive. Fatherless Girls defies one-sentence descriptions, but the impeccable craft and shimmering sentences elevate this book to immediate canon status.
- The Summer of Dead Birds by Ali Liebegott — Liebegott is a fixture in queer poetry, for good reason. Her latest collection, from Feminist Press (2019), is a meditation on grief and loss with a good dose of humor, shaped with beautiful cadence and structure.
- We All Need to Eat by Alex Leslie — This 2018 Book*hug collection of interconnected short stories centers on Soma, a young lesbian reckoning with romantic and familial relationships, trauma, mental illness, and the strong connection she has with her late grandmother. The stories take place in different chapters of her life from childhood to adulthood. Some read like prose poems, some are more traditional in structure; Leslie excels in both.
- Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson — This is one of those rare YA books that doesn’t fall into pervasive YA tropes. Woodson writes across genres, and has an adult fiction book forthcoming. This tender coming-of-age story is about a young Black girl named August growing up in Brooklyn with her two best friends. While the queerness is definitely subtle in this one, Woodson is queer herself and writes so lyrically that this can easily be read as queer.
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi — Emezi is a nonbinary writer born and raised in Nigeria, and this semi-autobiographical novel is their debut. It tells the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman who has multiple selves. Often dark and deeply unsettling, the writing is dazzling and story unforgettable. Freshwater was nominated for a plethora of awards and won the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction.
- A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby — Chacaby has written a memoir of great scope and beauty, exploring with gender and sexuality, her Ojibwa-Cree cultural heritage, colonialism, and resilience. From a childhood filled with both love and abuse, her own alcoholism recovery to eventually becoming an alcoholism counselor, from motherhood to leading the first Pride parade in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Chacaby’s story sings. Published by University of Manitoba Press (2016).
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Rewire News, Buzzfeed, and Kirkus.
Banner image by John Nakamura Remy.