Straying From Home: Chelsey Johnson's Stray City shows us how we stay, stray, hold close and let go; is also the best queer story so far this year

Straying From Home: Chelsey Johnson's Stray City shows us how we stay, stray, hold close and let go; is also the best queer story so far this year

Rules of the Lesbian Mafia:

1.     All lesbians are in the Lesbian Mafia

2.     There is no boss of the Lesbian Mafia

3.     Always unite against white supremacist heteropatriarchy

4.     Always have each other’s backs

5.     Power in numbers

These rules are laid out early in Stray City, the sprawling debut novel from Chelsey Johnson. The story centers around Andy, an early-twenties lesbian hipster artist scraping by in 1990s Portland, Oregon. And these rules give a structure to her life, until she realizes the idealism behind them is harder to live by- and be judged by- than she thought.

Generally, if I read this description of a protagonist, I might not be inclined to pick up the book (though I probably would purely because she’s a lesbian and there aren’t enough of us in literature). But hipsters are annoying, right? The self-absorbed starving artists who congregate in hives in Brooklyn and the Pacific Northwest cities can be grating in their self-righteousness and too-cool attitudes.

But that’s not this story.

Okay, it’s a little bit this story. Andy and her queer found family certainly have some eye-roll-inducing moments. But Johnson weaves intricacies into many of her characters that give them much more depth than the “queer Portland hipster artist” label allows. And ultimately, this story is largely about labels- the importance of using them to claim and own one’s identity, and the equally important need to let go of even the most tightly-held identifiers- loosening their grip, or one’s grip on them.

The book traces large chunks of Andy’s story from childhood to parenthood. She grew up in a religiously conservative family and community in Nebraska, where she first fell in love with a girl, her best friend’s cousin:

The more I fell in love with Zoe… the more I realized that the feeling was not a new arrival but a part of me awakened, like sap stirring under bark. And that in all the miles and miles of green fields stretching toward the horizon as far as I could see from the end of our driveway, there was not a single place for that feeling to exist, except inside me.

The language Johnson uses around the queer experience feels very much to be that of an insider, a writer who understands what it’s like to be queer- closeted, out and proud, confused, self-reflective, outcast, embraced. (The voice of young Andy is not unlike emily danforth’s Cameron in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is my favorite YA novel). One of the Stray City’s greatest pillars of strength comes from the way in which the writing shimmers with a woman’s relentless search for what it means to be queer, and what it means to be in a bubble- whether it’s the closet, a town in Nebraska or Oregon, or the Lesbian Mafia- and what it means to push the boundaries of one’s own definitions of queerness and family. In a story that feels unwieldy at times, this undercurrent is strong throughout and holds the narrative together.

After estrangement from her family and being forced to drop out of college, Andy finds family in the queer/mostly-actually-just-lesbian community in Portland, where she works two jobs (record store and vintage furniture store, naturally) while making art with her friends. Following a particularly brutal heartbreak, Andy finds herself oddly attracted to a man, Ryan, for the first time in her life.

They begin what Andy describes as “an affair;” first flirting, then sleeping together, eventually going away for entire weekends as Andy tries desperately to hide what she sees as betrayal of her people by engaging in a heterosexual relationship, while also attempting to make sense of it to herself. Finally, she ends up pregnant, and although this plot point is revealed in the synopsis, it doesn’t actually happen until nearly halfway through this 400+-page tome. What happens afterward is something I won’t spoil, but to me the buildup to the pregnancy reveal seemed a little drawn-out, and the After felt rushed in comparison, maybe because it involves a 10-year time jump and a switch from first person to third person. (Ultimately I liked the ending though, which is more than I can say about a lot of ostensibly queer stories I’ve read).

Regardless of the structure, I personally appreciated the nuance of Andy and Ryan’s relationship. For its entire duration, Andy questions herself deeply, observing her own emotional and physical responses and desires at every turn. It is clear to her that she can never love Ryan the way she loved the women she had been with, but that she does indeed love him in a different way. She also does not enjoy the penetrative part of the sex they have, despite alluding to having enjoyed it with women using toys. This is another detail of queer self-exploration that gives the narrative an authentic quality.

Andy never identifies herself as bisexual, and in fact she and her Lesbian Mafia friends have some pretty cringe-worthy conversations about the invalidity of bisexuality, which is problematic but also very much of the 90s. Biphobia among lesbians was an even bigger problem then than it is now; see also: The L Word and every movie in which a woman “experimented” with another woman but ended up with a man in the end.

However, the importance of Andy’s friends cannot be understated. Like so many (all?) queer people, she finds family with other queers, and the deep need for validation and understanding that brings queer people together makes for life-affirming and life-saving bonds. As Andy puts it: “I made myself brave and my new friends made me braver.”

In the same way that being her true self alienated her conservative family of origin, Andy finds herself engaging in something that she knows will alienate her from her chosen family. In that crook between knowing who you are and learning who you are, Andy finds herself stuck, unmoored. But she manages to maintain a shred of groundedness within herself, as in a scene in which she and Ryan are about to have sex, and he asks her:

“Tell me about girls.”

“What do you mean?” I said… “You’ve been with girls.”

“What is it you like about them?”

I studied his eyes. “No,” I said.

…”What’s it like?” he persisted.

I said, “It’s not like in porn. And it’s not like this. And it’s not for you to know.”

Going into this book, I was cautious. Would this be another heteronormative story, would the queerness be a weak thread, or worse, bait? From my perspective as a homoromantic lesbian ace-spectrum andro-queer, I did not find this to be the case. I ended up very invested in Andy (not so much in Ryan, but when have I ever been invested in a cis-het white dude); in her personal queer identity, an identity which is inherently unique to every self-identified queer; in her past, present, and future, even when that future involved children, which are not generally my favorite. Andy and her self-exploration carried me through this book. Andy, and the prose, which could be described as somewhat flowery but which I adored:

Goodbye, Nebraska. Goodbye, wide black sky. Goodbye, velvet humidity of the summer night air. Goodbye pulsing cricket drone. Goodbye, fireflies.

Hello, moss, rain, towering firs, bridges, fickle skies, girls, life.

… Deep, cold, brain-cleaning breaths

The sky was black, crazy with stars so thick they smeared in white streaks.

I love this kind of lyrical writing. Sue me.

This novel is heavily populated with characters, some fleeting, some more established, but to me it was Andy’s story. I won’t forget her soon. Consider this reader ecstatic that a book like this is being published by an imprint of a major publisher for wide distribution, and a new loyal follower of Chelsey Johnson.

4/5 stars

Disclosure: I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book for free through a giveaway.

Stray City will be released on March 22, 2018 by Custom House Publishing, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.