May Reads: History, Herstory, Theirstory, Ourstory

Welcome to Everything I’ve Read So Far in May! I didn’t really structure this month’s reading around a theme, other than my perpetual themes of reading authors who are not cis-het white men and who are, in fact, mostly queer womxn. Which, luckily for all of us, still leaves a giant literary canon that is impossible to work one’s way through in a lifetime!

May reads book stack.jpg

I also moved this month, which means I had very little time/focus to read print books, but an overabundance of packing/unpacking/cleaning/etc. time to listen to audiobooks. So it’s very audio-heavy this month, but I did manage 3 short print reads which were all very different from each other (but yes, they were all written by queer women). (Zora Neale Hurston’s sexuality is debated but tbh so are all queer historical figures so).

Would You Rather by Katie Heaney

Katie Heaney is known for her adultolescence-themed novels and her many writings on being a grown-up who’s never been in a relationship, except now she’s in one that seems like a fairy tale. In 2014’s Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, which I have not read, she wrote about her singledom and, from what I gather, concluded that she was not alone in this date-less life (a sound conclusion), and that romantic relationships aren’t everything (also true). Again, I haven’t read it, but I think that was the gist.

Back in March, she published an essay in the NYT’s Modern Love column called Am I Gay or Straight? Maybe This Fun Quiz Will Tell Me, which I adored. In it, she writes about her brief obsession with using quizzes to determine her sexuality, illustrating many a person’s plight of trying to figure out their identity in a world where neat categories and little boxes are coveted. Those of us who are a little compulsive and a little perfectionist and a little self-conscious and a lot doubtful of everything sometimes find comfort in the idea that someone or something else can tell us what we are.

So it was on the heels of reading this resonant essay that I snatched up Would You Rather, the follow-up to Never Have I Ever, in which Katie realizes that in fact the only reason she’s never been in a relationship is that she didn’t know she was gay. Lol!

I have mixed feelings about this story. Not the part about her not realizing she was gay- that’s totally valid. It took me FOREVER to realize I was gay, even though in retrospect I knew it all along. Repression is real! So are other reasons for not knowing stuff about yourself! Even Queer Icon Cameron Esposito had no idea she was gay until she was in college.

The mixed feelings stem from the narrative, which Would You Rather fits nicely into, that when someone realizes they’re gay and they go through the coming out thing and find community and whatnot, that suddenly it’s easy to find the love of their life and to feel like now that they know what it’s like to kiss someone of the gender(s) they’re attracted to, life is amazing!

I don’t fault Katie for living a life where this basically happened for her. I think it’s wonderful that she discovered something important about herself and fell head over heals in love with one of her very first lesbian dates and they’ve been together ever since. But the story’s cleanness grates on me a little nonetheless.

That said, Katie Heaney is an engaging writer. Her humor is dead-on most of the time. On her self-proclaimed “sexless life” as an ostensibly straight woman, she writes:

Let’s say a mousetrap had consciousness, and it lay down somewhere very few mice like to go… then let’s say that on the rare occasion a mouse did come close enough, instead of snapping its silver arm down across its back, the mousetrap was like, Ehhh, I’ll get the next one. Then the mousetrap would feel very bad for itself for a while. It was kind of like that.

And on kissing a man:

But even when I finally did kiss a man I really and truly liked, I felt almost nothing. All that was there was the feeling I get when I achieve any task I set out to accomplish. That is to say, it definitely felt as good as transferring a hundred dollars to my savings account, but not any better.

This book is basically a bunch of linked essays chronicling her inner strife about the process of figuring out her sexuality and then, well, figuring it out. It’s broken up by short snippets about all the girls she had crushes on as a kid/teen. It also includes a gem of a chapter about Harry Styles and his place in queer lady culture. I would recommend it to someone looking for a funny and light mainstream queer read with a happy ending.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

First written in the late 1920s, Barracoon finally got its first publication in April 2018. Zora Neale Hurston is well known for her writing, much of which was part of the Harlem Renaissance, and much of which was anthropological in nature. Unfortunately her work went largely unrecognized during her lifetime.

Barracoon is her recount- really a transcription- of the time she spent interviewing Cudjo Lewis, born Kossula, in 1927. Cudjo was the last known survivor of the slave trade to be taken from Africa to the US, after the slave trade had officially ended.

“How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow?” Hurston writes in her opening chapter. “How does a pagan life with a Christian God? How has the Nigerian ‘heathen’ borne up under the process of civilization?

I was sent to ask.”

Alice Walker wrote the foreword to this and it perfectly expresses the power of Cudjo’s story:

I’m not sure there was ever a harder read than this, for those of us duty bound to carry the ancestors, to work for them, as we engage in daily life in different parts of the world where they were brought in chains… and where we also have had to struggle for our humanity, to experience joy of life, in spite of everything evil we have witnessed or to which we have been subjected.
Reading Barracoon, one understands immediately the problem many black people… had with it. It resolutely records the atrocities African peoples inflicted on each other, long before shackled Africans, traumatized, ill, disoriented, starved, arrived on ships as ‘black cargo’ in the hellish West… We are being shown the wound.

 

The bulk of the book is told from Cudjo’s first person point of view, and is written in his dialect. While occasionally challenging to follow, the dialect is a vital part of the story. It’s the main reason publishers gave Hurston as to why they wouldn’t publish this work when she submitted it. Also, history is embedded in language, so reading Cudjo’s words as he spoke them provides its own depth to the narrative.

The stories Cudjo tells- from surviving the massacre of his village to the barracoon (the barracks where the captured were kept before getting on the ships), from the ship to slavery, from emancipation to his role in founding Africatown; from the way Black Americans treated Africans, to the his marriage and children, to the deaths of his family and the parables his neighbors ask him to tell; from his longing for his home to his lush garden in which he sits with Hurston- there is an entire lifetime, an entire individual and global history, in these 112 short pages. I hadn’t read anything like it before, and am glad I did. I also now need to read all of Zora Neale Hurston’s work because I haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God since high school and definitely did not appreciate her narrative voice enough then. Even the short passages she writes from her point of view in Barracoon are engrossing.

So Lucky by Nicola Griffith

I wrote a full review of this book over on my bonus book reviews page, but that was before I went to her reading at Elliott Bay. She’s legitimately awesome?! Like so funny and confident?! I mean, I guess I’m not surprised, but whenever I see writers who are really lively and not shy, I marvel. Whenever I read my stuff aloud in a class or my writing group, I do this thing I like to call “lobstering,” which is where I turn red as a lobster and sweat bullets. And those are spaces where I know and trust everyone and feel totally safe. To read in front of strangers with reverence for your own work and be super engaged and funny and answer any and all questions… amazing.

Two Nicola Griffith event highlights: 1. She minced no words in explaining that So Lucky felt urgent for her to publish (she wrote it in 3 weeks and it was published a year later) because the state of crip lit is today what the state of queer lit was in the 60s. As in, almost no representation and what there is is terrible! So she wrote a book to further the progress. 2. She asked people who were getting books signed (who had read it) what their favorite and least favorite parts were. This made me lobster but also made be think of an answer! Which is that I liked the fact that the ‘monster’ in the book was both real and not real, because that’s how brains are. If this makes you curious, I highly suggest reading this book. (I suggest it anyway).

Audio!

The following reviews are lifted directly from my Goodreads, which you can be friends with me on if you want.

Atlas of the Human Heart by Ariel Gore
Ariel Gore is one of my favorite writers ever ever, so I of course loved this book, but if you haven't read We Were Witches or The End of Eve, I highly recommend reading them both before you read this one. The writing is still very good, but it doesn't have *quite* the same lyrical magic that the other two do. I enjoyed this book as background for the other two. That said, the story is still fascinating, and kind of unbelievable- at turns brash, poignant, devastating, enraging, hilarious, touching... all the things. She's sure had some adventures and been through some shit, and I'm very happy she decided to write all these books about her wild life.

Meaty by Samantha Irby
I almost gave this 4 stars- it’s really funny and well-written (and well read by the author!) but also got a little repetitive and twisted up in body shaming? Definitely in a satirical way but it grated a little. Also it was surprisingly hetero, but I guess I just expected something more queer given that she’s now married to a woman. Really looking forward to reading her more recent collection!

Tomorrow Will be Different by Sarah McBride
I tend to be kind of defeatist and pessimistic when it comes to the state of the world, including and maybe especially the US government. But Sarah McBride has a contagious optimism that really swept me up. She shares so many stories of triumph- interpersonal, local, regional and national- from her life as an activist for LGBTQIA+/human rights in America. She’s not naive, and has had a lot of shit flung at her, but there’s so much hope to be found in her journey as an activist and staunch believer in the power of government since she was 13(!) years old. There’s also a good bit about her husband Andy, who was also an audaciously hopeful and loving activist and person, until he died of cancer before he turned 30. Their love story is so beautiful and the loss so tragic, it wrecked me; I was crying in my car on the way to work listening to it. As a whole I was pretty riveted with everything in this book, and I’m grateful for writers and activists like Sarah who put everything on the line in their work and share their stories with such tenacity and optimism and vulnerability. Highly recommend this book to everyone. 

Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
This was a quick and very sweet story, definitely a hard YA which isn’t really my wheelhouse. However I think for having been written (and more importantly published) in the early 90s, it’s pretty fantastic. I wish I’d read it then. The total witch hunt that the head of school goes on to ostracize the lesbian student and teachers felt really heavy-handed and kind of overdone, but it’s actually pretty great to have the perspective of 20 years to see how different things are now- that in most cases in the US today, it would be that homophobic teacher who would be ostracized, rather than the queers. Other than that, this is a very sweet meet-cute love story between two girls and has a happy ending, which is still hard to come by in queer stories!

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles
I listened to this on audio and enjoyed it, though I found myself missing some things so I think it’s worth reading in print. The story is pretty much what I expected: the adventures and exploits of a literary/poet dyke in the ~70s. I can see why it’s a classic in the queer canon. It’s lyrical in the sense of having an almost slam-poet rhythm, with lots of short punchy sentences. It didn’t blow me away, but I think if I’d read it when I was younger it would have. Totally worth reading!

Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning by Leslie Odom Jr.
This book is a really fast read and fits solidly in the genre of inspiration reading. It lacks depth but it’s uplifting. I recommend the audio book because duh, it’s Leslie Odom Junior’s voice.

Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead by Cecile Richards with Lauren Peterson
I really loved this memoir. Cecile Richards grew up entrenched in politics and activism, and her stories are fascinating and ultimately really hopeful. Plus it’s nice to hear a woman with power give no fucks about pandering to the right wing. That said, it would’ve been better if she had mentioned trans health care even once, considering her organization is one of the only places in the country where it’s provided.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
This was as good as everyone says, I’m glad I finally read it.

That's all for this month! Next month is gay christmas aka Pride Month, and I have an epic TBR for it. Until then, happy reading fellow book nerds!

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