‘Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy’ By Leslie Brody c2020, Seal Press $30/335 pages
I love reading biographies – especially, of queer artists and writers. But some bios put you to sleep.
Happily, “Sometimes You Have to Lie” by Leslie Brody, the new, intriguing biography of queer artist and writer Louise Fitzhugh, author and illustrator of the beloved children’s book “Harriet the Spy,” won’t give you any shut-eye.
“Harriet the Spy,” since its publication in 1964, has been enjoyed by generations of kids and adults. It’s been made into a movie. Brody was hired in 1988 to write an adaptation of “Harriet the Spy” for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company.
I discovered “Harriet the Spy” only recently as I read “Sometimes You Have to Lie.” What a great find!
Harriet, a sassy New York City kid, is a writer. Her nanny, Ole Golly, tells her that writers take notes on people. Harriet, notebook in hand, soon begins to “spy” on everyone – from her neighbors to her schoolmates.
As Fitzhugh, who was queer, wrote to her friend, gay poet James Merrill, Harriet is a “nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.”
Harriet is fabulously “nasty!” She wears jeans, carries a tool belt on her waist and says “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!”
Harriet is the queer love-child of Jo March and Holden Caulfield. She’s inspired thousands of hetero and queer readers to become spies and rebels (writers).
As it so often is with LGBTQ artists and writers (even creators of classics), I had no idea that Louise Fitzhugh, who lived from 1928 to 1974, was queer. Fitzhugh wasn’t just a lesbian. She was fabulously queer!
Fitzhugh was born in Memphis, Tenn. Her family was wealthy. Her parents, who met and wed quickly in a “jazz age marriage,” divorced when she was a baby. She was raised by her father Millsaps Fitzhugh and her eccentric, but loving grandmother.. For years, she was told that her mother had died. Later, Fitzhugh learned that her mother, who was denied custody and visitation rights, was alive. She was devastated to read in news accounts of her parents’ acrimonious divorce proceedings that during their quarrels her folks had thrown her (a baby) on to a couch.
As a teen, Fitzhugh had a boyfriend who thought of her as “beautiful” but “a little different from the other girls, a little bit more serious and very smart.”
He was right on all counts. Early on, Fitzhugh knew that she liked girls. As a teenager, she fell in love with photojournalist Amelia Brent. At the same time, she eloped with Ed Thompson, because he, like her, wanted to leave the Jim Crow South. Fitzhugh soon had a change of heart, the unconsumated marriage was annulled and she returned to Memphis.
She didn’t remain back home for long. Soon, Fitzhugh, 19, left to attend Bard to study poetry and painting. For the rest of her life, she lived in Greenwich Village in New York and later in Connecticut (while traveling to Rome and other locales). Over the decades, she had several loving, long-term, same-sex relationships. Fitzhugh was quite close to a male friend, but rebuffed his wish for sex, because she couldn’t “abide” a man “in her bed.”
Fitzhugh’s circle of vital, creative queer friends ranged from children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak to playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin’s spouse, was among those who knew her.
I so wish I could have been part of this glittering 1950s queer life — until I realize how closeted queers had to be.
“As an adult, Fitzhugh was unapologetically out of the closet,” Brody writes. Fitzhugh also was aware, Brody adds, that a “little lie to preserve your identity and self-respect can be a soul-saving measure.”
But, Fitzhugh knew that, as Ole Golly tells Harriet, “to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
“Sometimes You Have to Lie” is the fascinating story of the long-hidden truth about the life of the queer author of an iconic children’s book. Harriet wouldn’t be able to put it down.
December’s here. The end of the cycle. It is always important to take a moment and reflect as the year comes to an end, and it is all the more necessary to do so after a whirlwind year such as 2020.
December is like reaching the last page of an addicting novel and being left on a cliff-hanger. Some storylines were nicely tied up, other questions still remain unanswered, and you start prophesizing about the sequel. You accept the completion of this part of the story, yet look forward to where it’ll take you next.
Take this final month of the year to reflect on everything you have seen and experienced. Take it all in, and allow yourself to be refreshed and ready to embrace the new year. Take a breath, read a book, and prepare yourself.
December’s anticipated LGBTQ+ books are here for you.
Take an exhilarating trip into the future with the Black queer-centered collection Black Futures. Edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, Black Futures offers “images, photos, essays, memes, dialogues, recipes, tweets, poetry, and more–to tell the story of the radical, imaginative, provocative, and gorgeous world that Black creators are bringing forth today.”
If you’d like to take a moment to reflect, The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore “records the ebb and flow of desire in daily life” and questions what it is to belong. Flip through The Drag Explosion, a collection of photos by Linda Simpson from the 1980s and 90s, “a tribute to a golden age” of the drag scene.
Embrace and remember history in the wake of World AIDS Day with The Storm: One Voice From the AIDS Generationby Christopher Zyda, a memoir of living through the epidemic in Los Angeles during the 80s and 90s. Discover the work of Ruth Coker Burks in All the Young Men, the telling of the bonds she made as a nurse for HIV/AIDS patients at the beginning of the crisis. Or grapple with the resilience and struggle wrought by the AIDS epidemic in the new fiction title As If Death Summoned by Alan Rose. Rose’s novel “testifies to the power of grief to erode a life, and–for those who can find a way through their grief–the power to rebuild and renew it.”
Face your fears with a chilling contemporary queer ghost story, one that mixes the threat of gentrification with supernatural unrest. Sam J. Miller’s The Blade Between explores “a rapidly changing city in upstate New York and the mysterious forces that threaten it.”
Refresh yourself with a modern retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone with Tiny by Mairead Case, a journey that delves into mourning and understanding grief. Go on a journey of self-discovering with The Ballad of Ami Miles by Kristy Dallas Alley. Read of a dystopian future, resistance, and a heroic drag queen in Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez.
There is so much unknown waiting for us in 2021. Whether you are looking to reflect on the year, or refresh yourself and prepare for the new year, there is something waiting for you in this month’s releases. Look through these new arrivals, and find what it is you need to close out the year.
‘A Promised Land’ By Barack Obama c.2020, Crown $45/768 pages
Most memoirs of politicians are pablum — ghost-written snooze-inducers. At best, good door-stops.
“A Promised Land,” former President Barack Obama’s new memoir, breaks that mold. Though it’s over 700 pages, you won’t be tempted to turn away from this, by turns, measured, moving, detailed, witty, and self-aware volume. The memoir, narrated by Obama, is a great listen (29 hours, 10 minutes) on Audible.
Unlike most politicos, Obama can write! Many of us ink-stained wretches would give anything to have his writing chops. Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama’s critically acclaimed 1995 coming-of-age memoir, came out years before he was a player on the national political stage.
Like many, I knew some of the highlights of Obama’s life before I picked up “A Promised Land”: his spouse and best friend Michelle, his daughters, his dog Bo, his rapid rise from Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to president of the United States.
As a lesbian, I knew of the many things that Obama and his administration did to support LGBTQ rights – from issuing Pride proclamations to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” At his last press conference, Obama called on Blade reporter Chris Johnson to ask a question. (Obama was the first U.S. president to call on a LGBTQ press reporter at a press conference.) No wonder many of us think of Obama as the “first gay president.”
If this memoir had been hacked out by a ghostwriter for a typical politico (even a queer-friendly politico), I’d probably just skim through it. But, because of Obama’s superb writing, the breadth of his thinking and the wide-ranging events of his administration (from his meetings with foreign leaders to the passage of the Affordable Care Act), I was hooked from the get-go on “A Promised Land.” The Republican opposition to his every move (no matter how bipartisan he tries to be) is an underlying theme.
“For a month, Michelle and I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock,” Obama writes in the memoir’s preface of what life was like for him and Michelle after he left office in January 2017, “replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act.”
No way could I stop reading after that!
“A Promised Land” is the first of two volumes. It begins with a preface in which Obama says he wants to give an “honest rendering” of the events that happened on his watch and ends with the death of Osama bin Laden.
The first third of the memoir is about his life before he becomes president. Here, Obama writes of his family, youth, college years, law school life, how he met Michelle, his time as a community organizer and political campaigns.
Obama writes personally about his evolving attitudes toward LGBTQ rights. He believes that the “American family” includes LGBTQ people and immigrants. “How could I believe otherwise, when some of the same arguments for their exclusion had so often been used to exclude those who looked like me?” Obama writes.
But, he doesn’t, he writes, dismiss those with differing views on queers and immigrants as bigots. He remembers that his own beliefs weren’t always so “enlightened.”
“I grew up in the 1970s, a time when LGBTQ life was far less visible to those outside the community,” Obama writes.
His Aunt Arlene, “felt obliged to introduce her partner of twenty years as ‘my close friend Marge’ whenever she visited us in Hawaii,” he recalls.
When Obama was a teen, he and his peers used anti-gay slurs. “And like many teenage boys in those years, my friends and I sometimes threw around words like ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ at each other as casual put downs,” Obama writes, “callow attempts to fortify our masculinity and hide our insecurities.”
After nearly four years of Donald Trump, it’s a pleasure to read a presidential memoirs written with intelligence, wit and insight. Whether you’re a political junkie, a lover of gossip or a fan of engaging writing, “A Promised Land” will leave you wanting more.
Its protagonist, Nadir, a young trans man grieving the violent death of his mother and struggling to find his identity, discovers a journal left behind by Laila Z, a mysterious Syrian bird artist who disappeared decades before, in a soon-to-be-demolished building in Little Syria.
By switching between the journal and chapters narrated by Nadir, Joukhadar tells a story of love and loss that begins in Syria in the 1960s and winds its way into Nadir’s present in Brooklyn. Through Laila Z’s journal, Nadir comes to understand that people like him have always existed, even if they had to live their lives in secret.
Throughout it all are birds, both real and imagined. They drop from the sky, land on window ledges, and provide one of the central mysteries of the novel: Did Nadir’s mother, an ornithologist, and Laila Z see the same elusive and unsubstantiated species of bird decades apart?
While Joukhadar untangles the story of Nadir’s mother’s death and Laila Z’s life, he explores the interior life of a young trans man wary of coming out and the larger implications of gender, secrecy, and identity.
Joukhadar spoke to Goodreads contributor Samantha Schoech from his apartment in Sardinia, Italy, where he is sheltering-in-place with his Italian partner during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their conversation has been edited. Goodreads: Congratulations on the new book. What’s it like to have a book coming out in the time of COVID-19?
Zeyn Joukhadar: It’s definitely weird. I do feel lucky that it’s coming out later in the pandemic because I think we have a better handle on doing virtual events and that kind of thing. We’ve figured out how to connect with readers.
ZJ: I was focused on epigenetics. I think that did come into play when I was writing this book because some of what I was studying was the way that things that happen to us when we are in the womb affect us later on. If your grandmother was pregnant with a child with ovaries, that child already had the egg that would eventually become you. So, the things that happened during your grandmother’s pregnancy also happened to the egg and to us.
We know that trauma is intergenerational. But when you look at resilience and survival, maybe those things also can get passed down. When I was looking at queer and trans ancestors in this book, those were things that I was thinking about—that in a way our ancestors are present with us, maybe more than we can even know.
GR: The protagonist in your book is the grandchild of Syrian immigrants to New York. Even in the present-day New York City of the novel, there is a strong current of culture and history and Syrian identity. Did you grow up with this type of cultural awareness?
ZJ: I think it’s difficult to grow up in diaspora as a person of color in the United States without being made aware of who you are and where you come from. Even if that place is New York, if your ancestors come from somewhere else, you’re not allowed to forget that.
When I was researching this book, and finding out about the existence of Little Syria [in New York], even though this neighborhood was almost entirely torn down to build the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the fact that it existed at one time really got me thinking about the fact that there were these people who were living there who were trying to find their own belonging in New York City. There was something really powerful about that. Even though I didn’t grow up in a predominantly Syrian American community or even a predominantly Arab American community, I did live in a community where there were a lot of immigrants.
GR: Do you think being Arab American influences the kinds of stories you’re drawn to telling?
ZJ: I think that that’s always going to be part of my lens, you know, just like for any writer, because that’s my experience. It’s always going to be present, and I think that’s something we should all embrace. Nobody comes to the page without a lens.
GR: OK, back to this novel. There is so much loss in this story—actual death, but also lost love, loss of country, and the loss of an unwanted identity. How do you see these things in relation to one another?
ZJ: Obviously, this book is about someone grieving the loss of his mother, but at the same time there is a realization throughout the book that the mother is very much present in his life and that our ancestors are very much present in our lives.
Grief over somebody dying is a very different thing from transition, and I think that part of the book was also disentangling those.
One of the things I was trying to hold in my mind and heart when I was writing this was the way that something can feel like loss when it’s not really lost. Oftentimes, transition gets framed by cis people as a kind of loss, and sometimes the people around a trans person will react to someone coming out as if it’s a loss, not realizing that the person is still very much the same person and that the only thing that’s happened is that something has been gained, something has been found—a new agency and joy and the ability to actually take joy in existing and in living more fully. I think that that’s a big part of the book.
GR: And what about birds? They’re everywhere in this book. They are both real and symbolic. They are in art and in omens. How did you come to that? Why birds?
ZJ: As I was writing, I started to think about the piece that inspired the title, which is a long Sufi poem that in English translates to “The Conference of the Birds.” The gist of it is that there are these 30 birds that are seeking God and eventually realize that they are reflections of the divine. It became sort of a theme for me in the writing.
I wanted to write something about finding one’s way to a feeling of holiness or sacredness. As a trans person or queer person, we don’t get to feel sacred or feel that we are a reflection of the divine. Nadir is searching in the book for himself. He’s also searching to find the sacred and the divine in himself and to feel like he is whole and loved. I think that that’s where the birds come in.
GR: What kind of research did you have to do to write this book?
ZJ: One of the great sources of information for me was going to see an exhibit about Little Syria at the New York City Department of Records in 2016, before I’d even written a draft. Then, in 2019, I was an artist-in-residence at the Arab American National Museum, and I took the research further in their archives.
Some of it is just knowledge of the times and being able to wonder, “Well, what if this kind of person had lived? What if this had happened?” When you look at queerness and transness in the historical record, you realize quickly that you have to read between the lines to find us. Either queer and trans people get erased outright or they weren’t able to be out. In a lot of ways, it’s very frustrating and sad and difficult. But what’s wonderful about it is that you can look at a period of time in history and know that there were queer and trans people there. It gives you this wonderful freedom to imagine how people lived and loved and had their lives in any time period and any place. And it might have been really difficult, but they must have also known lots of moments of beauty, too. And that’s a complicated feeling, but it’s also a wonderful one.
GR: Who are the writers who really influenced you as a fiction writer?
ZJ: I would say Toni Morrison, for sure. Her fiction, for sure, but I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately for comfort, and I was reading The Source of Self-Regard. It’s brilliant. She writes a lot about craft. She talks about how she chooses her opening sentences and her final sentences. There’s this piece where she talks about Moby Dick and how the author might have been talking about the idea of whiteness in a way that he couldn’t express any other way. I feel like reading her has really made me a better writer.
GR: What’s some of the nonfiction you’ve been reading?
ZJ: I was reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I have been reading memoir and essay collections. I think that as writers, we have this impulse to make meaning out of things that happen. Obviously, that’s part of our craft whether in nonfiction or fiction, right? And I think that it’s been frustrating, for me at least, to not be able to do that yet. We’re in a thing that we can’t see the edges of yet, and maybe reading memoir and essay gives me the tools to try to make sense of what’s happening to me.
ZJ: No, it really has very little to do with my own life. I mean, obviously there’s a trans protagonist from New York, and I’ve lost a parent. But other than that, it’s not autobiographical at all.
I’m not sure I could ever write an autobiographical novel. I find the whole idea very terrifying.
GR: OK, one final question, and I know this is a hard one, but what are the books that you wish were assigned in high school and university courses?
ZJ: It’s really hard to answer that. I definitely wish that when I was that age I had read Love Is an Ex-Country that I mentioned before. I still have to read Laila Lalami’s most recent book, Conditional Citizens; I’m really looking forward to that. But The Other Americans was a really important read for me. And, of course, I wish there had been trans writers that I had been able to read. There’s so much good stuff out now by trans writers.
None of your business, so just keep your nose out of things. You’re on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know. It’s being taken care of, never you mind, it isn’t your concern. In “Wendy Carlos: A Biography” by Amanda Sewell, some things just aren’t discussed.
No one who knew Wendy Carlos as a child should’ve been surprised that she became the musician she did: Carlos’ mother’s family loved to sing and dance, and Carlos’ parents wanted to make sure she continued the tradition. They gave her piano lessons but they couldn’t afford a piano, so Carlos’ father drew piano keys on a piece of paper so she could practice.
Though she was “assigned the male sex at birth,” Carlos knew early in her life that she was a girl, and was baffled that others couldn’t see that. It grew to greatly affect her: somewhat of a prodigy in music and early computing, Carlos won awards and accolades for her studies but her gender identity left her feeling awkward and alone, Sewell says. This was a time when transgender people were largely held up as “freaks.”
So Carlos kept her gender identity private, only revealing her truth to one friend with similar passions for music experimentation. Enjoying a spirited mutual challenge, she and Rachel Elkind played with new sounds until the day Elkind became intrigued by Carlos’ rendition of a Bach composition reproduced with a Moog synthesizer. As it happened, Carlos needed money to continue her work and with Elkind’s help, that composition became an entire album they called “Switched-On Bach.”
It did the trick: Carlos indeed made money from the million-selling album. But it also made her famous, which led to requests for interviews and intrusions about her gender identity, a subject that she felt unnecessarily superseded her musical career.
And that was something she absolutely did not want.
Over the past 40 years, Wendy Carlos has denied most requests to be interviewed, including an offer extended by author Amanda Sewell for this book. No problem; Sewell used an abundance of other sources to craft this biography, indicating that Carlos’ refusals were likely due to her ire at reporters who’ve continued to focus on her gender, rather than on her work. The irony is that a good portion of “Wendy Carlos: A Biography” deals with Carlos’ gender identity and her transitioning.
And yet – how could it not? Sewell shows how Carlos’ giftedness and her pioneering use of then-new technology changed music, as a whole; in a way, her respectful reporting on Carlos’ transition, relative to 1960s social perceptions and to LGBTQ history, both occurring at roughly the same time, also shows another aspect to Carlos’ personality and her dogged reach for what was then rather new.
Still, one can sympathize with Carlos’ wishes, which makes reading “Wendy Carlos: A Biography” feel sometimes voyeuristic.
Acclaimed author Randall Kenan, whose work reflected on being Black and gay in the South of the United States, has died aged 57.
Keenan’s celebrated works, including A Visitation of Spirits, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, and The Fire This Time, netted him a string of prestigious awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the North Carolina Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome Prize, and a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction.
He also penned an influential biography of gay novelist James Baldwin, and Walking on Water, an oral history of Black American life.
Tributes paid to ‘literary giant’.
Kenan was found dead Friday at his home in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His death was confirmed by the University of North Carolina, where Kenan taught as an English professor. No cause of death has been announced.
The UNC English and Comparative Literature department said: “[We are] saddened beyond words to give this news. We lost an incredible friend, colleague, mentor, professor and literary giant.
“Our collective hearts are aching with grief at the loss of professor Randall Kenan. We are beginning to prepare a tribute celebrating professor Kenan’s life, work, and the lasting impact he has left in the hearts and minds of our ECL community.”
In a tribute to the author, Lambda Literary wrote: “Randall Kenan’s contribution to the canon of contemporary gay literature is unparalleled.
“Brooklyn born and North Carolina raised, he was a writer who explored how desire, community, and generational trauma can both uplift and warp the Black gay rural experience.
“With a heightened lyricism and a nod to the fantastical, Kenan centred characters who often struggled against the thicket of their personal wants and histories.
“May Kenan’s writing be a long testament to his genius.”
Daniel Wallace, a friend and university colleague of Kenan, said:” He was just an immense talent. His best years were ahead of him… and he was a gentleman of the old school.”
Randall Kenan warned of ‘coming war’ over race relations.
Only two weeks ago, Kenan had published a reflective essay about recent unrest in the US and the “righteous destruction” of Confederate monuments.
Reflecting on what he might have though about the issue as a Black student at the university in the 1980s, Kenan wrote: “What I most would have struggled to imagine, is that certain people would be up-in arms were it to ever happen.
“That they would quite literally take over a state capital building, bearing arms, in anger to keep monuments up. That we might have another civil war over the matter.
“For me – a poor Black boy from the swamps of Eastern North Carolina – the Civil War was far from a lost cause, let alone a done war. I had underestimated how unfinished.”
Kenan warned of a “coming war” that “will not be about the monuments, but the mentalities”.
He added: “It is hard to imagine we have come to this moment in the early years of the 21st century. As a life-long fan of Star Trek, who lived to see the first Black Vulcan elected to the presidency of the United States, this entire situation feels very like something out of the back of Gene Roddenbery’s mind.
“Roddenbery might could have imagined such a 2020, but I never might have imagined it. Today is impossible. The convergence of Donald J Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, the unrest over police abuse and the tumbling of Confederate monuments were all unimaginable decades back. Can we seize the moment? We all must now readjust our thinking. The war has only just begun.”
‘A Saint from Texas’ By Edmund White Bloomsbury Publishing $18.20/304 pages
I’ve never been fooled by magicians. Even if I’m entranced by their magic, I’m still trying to figure out what tricks are involved. Yet, in his latest novel “A Saint from Texas,” queer writer Edmund White makes you believe that you can pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Readers, queer and non-queer, look forward to a new book from White as eagerly as movie fans wait for the Oscars.
White, now 80, has written more books than you can count from “The Joy of Gay Sex” to memoirs such as “My Lives” to biographies of Proust and Rimbaud to “A Boy’s Own Story” and other autobiographical novels. He taught at Princeton for 19 years. White, whose husband is writer Michael Carroll, has lived for much of his life in New York and Paris.
White is part of the first generation of LGBTQ writers to write for a queer audience. “Gay fiction before that, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, was written for straight readers,” he told The New York Times.
It wasn’t surprising when the National Book Foundation presented White with the 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
White, who’s lived with HIV since 1985, has been an LGBTQ activist. He was a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“A Saint from Texas” is a departure from anything from what White has written before. Its main characters are women, twin sisters, not gay boys and men. Though much of the novel is set in Paris, the twins – Yvonne and Yvette, born in the 1930s, grow up in East Texas.
My heart sank as I first dipped into this book. The twins are teenagers in the 1950s. I have friends from Texas. There are lovely places in Texas. But who wants to read about girls stuck in Texas? True, they’re rich. Their father, born poor, has made millions from oil. And their stepmother is into clothes and society. But their father, who sexually abuses Yvette, insists that they remain “terrible Texas Baptists.”
Like Yvonne and Yvette (pronounced “Why-Von” and “Why-Vet” by their family and friends in Texas), I wanted to get as far away as I could from where they lived in Texas.
Mercifully, for the twins and readers, the sisters escape from Texas. “A Saint from Texas,” narrated by Yvonne, tells the story of their radically different journeys.
You’d find it hard to imagine people any more unlike each other than these sisters. Thank God, Yvonne is the narrator! Fortunately, we only hear from Yvette sporadically in her letters to her twin.
I don’t mean to dis Yvette. It’s just that Yvonne is the fun twin who has a sense of irony. As a teen in the 50s, she talks for hours with her friends on the phone, sneaks cigarettes (even though her father has promised to give her $1,000 on her birthday if she doesn’t smoke) and has a crush on one of her girlfriends.
Yvonne escapes to Paris. There, exchanging her fortune for his title (and entry to French society), Yvonne marries a French aristocrat. He’s a sexist, homophobic cad. Even so, Yvonne gets to hobnob with Audrey Hepburn while buying dresses at Givenchy, chat with actresses in Truffaut movies at parties and have male and female lovers.
Yvette is saintly! Early on, as Yvonne says, Yvette develops a “crush on God.” She wants to be virtuous – to help poor people – to find herself “in [God’s] immortal, loving arms.” To that end, she becomes a nun and missionary in Colombia. You almost think that Yvette is an insufferable saint until she says in a letter to Yvonne, “It occurred to me that the religious life was all hocus-pocus.”
In lesser hands, you might have given up after reading only a few pages of this novel. But, due to White’s magic touch you’ll find yourself spellbound by “A Saint from Texas.”
The idea of a short story collection entirely consumed by the topic of women loving women shouldn’t feel groundbreaking, but when I heard about Natalia Borges Polesso’s Amora, (translated by Julia Sanches) I gasped. I’m going to admit that I regularly type the names of book titles, movies, authors, celebrities, etc. into Internet search bars and add the word “gay” to the end like it’s some kind of last name. I don’t think I’m alone in this practice. It’s a form of bluntness real life rarely allows. It’s a desire to tease more queerness out of culture, to see my sexuality represented even if it isn’t obvious. Willa Cather wrote roving novels about women and men falling in love, but Wikipedia allowed me to see something more than heterosexual romance. Maybe Charles Swann isn’t gay, but Google made him so.
Still it can be disheartening to have to go outside the page to find the story you most want to hear. And reading Amora made me aware of just how much gets missed in abstraction. Where have the stories of elderly queer women been? Where are the stories of lesbian blood play, of girl crushes, and one night stands, of dyke pastors, and vapid queer gossip? That’s why Borges Polesso made me gasp. It’s all there in Amora. All of it.
Each story is a new shape. In each of the thirty-three stories (yes truly. Every single one of them!) a woman confronts her feelings for another woman. Sometimes, like in “Dreaming,” the Sapphic desire is the crux on which everything is built. Other times, like in “Bite Your Tongue,” it’s just a fact vaguely audible to the larger plot. But it’s always there. Even if it’s lurking in the background. And sometimes that’s what feels the most ground breaking. A story can be queer, even if the point of it isn’t queerness.
A few of the scenarios I particularly appreciated from Amora were in stories like “Marilia Wakes Up” in which an elderly lesbian couple goes about their Sunday morning ritual, simultaneously tragic in their continued closetedness and touching in their enduring compassion for one another. “Grandma, Are You a Lesbian” has to be one of the best short story titles I’ve ever come across. And, “Aunties” breathes reality into that fantasy of two queer nuns leading a life together. But, don’t get me wrong. Of course Borges Polesso can’t cover every type of lesbian story. There’s still room for so many more stories to be told, so many more perspectives. In a way, the ground she covers in just 223 pages is simply opening the door for more.
Perhaps because so many different types of lesbians are touched upon in this collection, there’s a certain brevity that laces its way through this book. Many stories seemed to end just as they’d begun. In “My Cousin’s In Town” a woman who isn’t out at work invites her colleagues over for dinner when her girlfriend is out of town. As she enters her apartment with the group though, she realizes her girlfriend, Bruna, has returned from her conference earlier than expected and proceeds to introduce her workmates to her “cousin” who is in town for an exam. The story ends shortly after this introduction. The dinner with colleagues lasts only half a paragraph, and everything comes to an end with Bruna chiding her lover, saying “the truth would have been painless” and then questioning this sentiment. As a reader this was jarring because I expected the story to explore this desire to hide, to unpack what it does to the relationship, but all that unpacking happens in no more than three final sentences.
One happy result of all these jolted endings is that the stories feel very much alive. We sense that the characters still have work to do, like they go on living even if it isn’t on the page. For this reason, I have some respect for Borges Polesso refusing to tie each story into a bow. She puts some of the labor onto her readers. There’s so much unpacking left to be done for queer narratives. The answers aren’t obvious, nor should they be.
Amora By Natalia Borges Polesso(Translated by Julia Sanches) Amazon Crossing Paperback, 9781542004336, 232 pp. May 2020
Broken People follows a lonesome, queer character named Sam in his search for a total transformation of himself. Sam Lansky’s debut novel, a work of autofiction, opens at a dinner party in Los Angeles. Sam overhears guests discussing a shaman who can fix everything that’s wrong with a person in three days. The promise seduces Sam, who, amidst superficial strangers and empty conversation, alights on a disturbing revelation. “It would be better to be dead, he thought… He did not want to die, in a practical sense—the corporeal permanence of death terrified him—but rather, to already be dead, to skip the death process and coast into a static condition of un-being, was something he fantasized about often. Certainly that had to be more bearable than sustained consciousness.” Broken People, full of gorgeous meditations of quiet desperation like this, is a fever-dream account of whether any of us can change, whether our disappointments and discontents might forever disappear.
At 28, Sam experiences palpable loneliness and self-doubt, combined with the unease that modern life reflected “his own inadequacy…back to him.” As an entertainment editor for an unnamed magazine (ostensily Time), Sam feels the life he’s created for himself, or “had stumbled into…through sheer dumb luck,” was an illusion. He’s written a memoir about his addiction as an adolescent growing up in New York, which is ostensibly The Gilded Razor, the acclaimed coming-of-age story Lansky published in 2016. Sam has since recovered, and yet a hole lies at the center of his story. He looks in the mirror at a body he wants to be invisible, but try as he might, he can’t see himself as anything but diminished and undeserving of love.
Would this heap of anxieties, then, warrant seeking out a radical transformation of oneself? Lansky has no choice but to travel deeper into Sam’s mind, sustaining tension by offering prolonged scenes of his thoughts, thoughts Sam believes could be useful for a new memoir. Sam tells his agent it’s “about finding myself in my twenties.” Here, Broken People begins to assume an ouroboric complexity. The novel, which enacts a kind of navel-gazing, becomes a stunning work of self-witnessing. Says Sam, “I have this loud internal narrator who tells me that I’m a piece of shit, that I don’t deserve anything I have, that any day now the whole thing will come crashing down… I don’t know how to be a person.” Perhaps, then, Sam, or Lansky—it’s not clear—can be a character in his own story. The tantalizing risk that some distance between memoir and fiction, between confession and invention, will collapse is what keeps readers reading.
Many novels have taken place in fewer than three days—but surely fixing everything wrong with Sam in such a short time is impossible. Still, he and Buck, a fifty-something architect from the dinner party, enlist the help of a shaman named Jacob to perform “open-soul surgery” on them. Using large, Latinate words like “transdimensional intercession,” and channeling the new-age language of healing, Jacob explains how each night he’ll hold what he calls “ceremony” (no article). Sam and Buck will take ayahuasca to open themselves up to the medicine’s spirit, what Jacob refers to as “she” or “her.”
Sam’s cynicism of the process echoes in some way that of the reader. Lansky’s use of a trip to effect some deeper personal revelation is, while a bit flimsy, a strategy not to forget the body. A work that traces consciousness—brilliant recent examples by Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor come to mind—can, if done poorly, start to look like a disembodied head thinking on the page. Lansky places Sam’s body in grave physical danger, and he gets a preview of the terrifying effects the drug will have on him. Sam becomes aware of “a black mass in his belly, sore and tumescent, the color and texture of lava rock.” But the stakes are higher than whatever Sam needs to emit from his core. Jacob asks Sam and Buck not to die during ceremony. Lansky merges the florid, roving language of an unsettled mind with the churning, roaring, “twisting and gawping” sensations within Sam’s organs. This vivid interplay, disconnect, and tension offers readers a beautiful portrait of Sam the inconsolable initiate.
Lansky puts Sam on a path to be shown places within himself from which he’s long hidden. On each night of ceremony, Sam travels deeper into his past, revisiting memories of former lovers and flings, ever doubtful that he’ll be healed. He’s reunited with his 25-year-old self. As a rather hopeful man who, sober and newly recovered from a period of addiction, Sam sees the world with possibility. Dating in New York, Sam asks himself, “When will I be loved?” He gets a chance at an enchanting life with Charles, a dashing, well-dressed risk analyst whose family money and finance job offer Sam comfort, beauty, and freedom. They spend weekends in the Hamptons, vacations in Paris, and thousands at Louis Vuitton. But beyond the veneer, there’s so much, Sam doesn’t wish to remember. “I don’t know why all the little things feel like big things,” Sam tells Charles during a heated exchange. There are tantrums thrown, fits of paralysis threaten the writing of his first memoir, and Sam sees through Charles’ eyes the surprising “capacity for cruelty” he himself possessed. At the heart of Sam’s brokenness lies fear. Except it looks like lashing out to the ones who love him the most.
Throughout the novel, Lansky weaves the story of Sam’s relationship with Noah, a reckless but also hardened man who had a rougher history of addiction than Sam. While his character is less nuanced than Charles, Noah illuminates Sam’s desire for danger, prompting an important facet of the story Sam tells himself about who he is. In a final twist, Lansky delivers an exciting formal flourish while on his last trip. His narrator-self and character-self split in two, two Is that look at one another. It’s a bold aesthetic choice that Lansky pulls off with considerable style. This, as Edmund White says, is the great experience one has in reading fiction, the splitting of a self. Such a disorientation results in re-seeing what we’ve long resisted looking at.
“The great curse of being a person in the world—you only ever get to be yourself,” writes Lansky. Yet Broken People ends on a note of hope. For Sam’s shamanic experience doesn’t fix anything that’s wrong with him, for nothing was wrong—except his perspective. Sam doesn’t get to be different, but he can train himself to see differently. His troubled past wasn’t the problem so much as how he saw his memories, how those memories made him think himself broken. Lansky’s choice to turn the seemingly true events of his life into a work of fiction, through the rather harrowing aide-memoire of an out-of-body trip, creates the distance a work of self-examination requires. Into the space Sam makes for himself, he emerges more generous. His flaws form a fuller self, rather than the sapped one some carry from coast to coast.
Broken PeopleBy Sam Lanksy Hanover Square Press Paperback, 9781335013934, 304 pp. June 2020
Melissa Bashardoust’s Girl, Serpent, Thorn has the lushness of a fairy tale and the boldness of the best contemporary YA fantasy. This opulent novel, inspired by traditional Persian stories, combines all the romance and intrigue of high fantasy with a deep exploration of the main character’s emotional world and relationship to her own strength. Back matter, including an extensive Author’s Note, provides more context about the fairy tales, myths, traditions, and cultural references that Bashardoust has woven into the novel, as well as suggestions for further reading for those interested in learning more.
Soraya, the shah’s sister, is hidden away from the public eye so that no one will discover the curse a div, or demon, placed upon her as a child: by sending div blood coursing through her veins, the demon ensured any living being Soraya touches will instantly die. When a mysterious, handsome soldier offers to help undo her curse, Soraya is smitten––and quickly embroiled in a political battle that sees her family’s rule upended in a coup d’état. The soldier turns out to be the feared half-man, half-div Shahmar, and he wants Soraya, another human who knows what it’s like to be part-div, to join his side in submitting the humans and divs to his violent rule.
Soraya is successful at undoing her curse, but now she must figure out how to stop the Shahmar from murdering her entire family, while still feigning interest in his romantic advances. To make matters more complicated, Soraya finds herself falling for Parvaneh, a female div who helped turn the Shahmar into the powerful creature he is and has regretted it ever since. Soraya isn’t sure she can trust a div like Parvaneh––especially one who proves so alluring––but with no other allies, she doesn’t have much choice.
The two team up to try to outwit the Shahmar and save Soraya’s family and Parvaneh’s fellow divs before it’s too late. As they sneak around the Shahmar’s heavily-guarded mountain fortress, their attraction deepens, with each touch a heightened sensation for Soraya, who spent so many years unable to even risk brushing up against another person for fear of striking them dead. Soraya describes the spark between her and Parvaneh as a kind of “wanderlust,” with her fingertips yearning “to explore new landscapes, new textures.” As the danger ramps up, these quiet moments between Soraya and Parvaneh become a tender respite, dramatizing Soraya’s longing for intimacy, both physical and emotional.
The story is sexy, bloody, and luxurious, but perhaps the most interesting part is the way Soraya slowly begins to see the things that have always made her different as not a weakness, but a strength. Her curse may have been just that––a curse––but it also gave her a way to defend herself. And when she makes a choice later in the book that means risking becoming cursed again, it is because she understands the div blood that ran through her veins in a new way. Perhaps being different doesn’t mean being shameful. Perhaps it doesn’t have to mean hiding away.
In a story about a protagonist who experiences attraction to more than one gender, this character arc is especially affirming. The Shahmar may be the first one to tell Soraya, “You and I don’t belong fully to either world,” but it is Parvaneh’s gentle love that helps Soraya see maybe she can simply belong to both: “Soraya no longer had to choose between one piece of herself and another. She could be whole.”
Girl, Serpent, Thorn By Melissa Bashardoust Flatiron Books Hardcover, 9781250764942, 336 pp. August 2020